As an experienced anime viewer with a penchant for dissecting the “goods” and the “bads” of any particular series, I’ve developed a sense of what I typically value in a fictional (or nonfictional) story. Though trying to pinpoint every little detail about what makes one topic of entertainment good or bad in an Aristotle-like manner is a near-impossible task in this day and age, I try to do my best to elaborate on why I find particular aspects of a story valuable or otherwise. In recent years—though its mark can be found in earlier decades—series have begun to hop onto the popular trend of something I’ve come to call “Self-indulgent writing,” which I will explain in more detail as the post continues. This passage will serve as the basis for what I’m referring to by this phrasing, should it ever come up in future articles (and I’m sure it will), as well as my thoughts on why this negative criticism of the topic may just be my desire to be a hipster.
First, let’s define the term “Self-indulgent” as through basic dictionary definitions: “Indulging one’s own desires, passions, whims, etc., especially without restraint.” Attribute this to writing and one can then assess that the phrase on its own could be inferred to mean writing that indulges one’s desires, passions, whims, and such. In short, or perhaps in layman’s terms, writing that seeks to draw upon one’s own interests. Kind of like fanfiction.
One should be wary, however, as to whom exactly is the focus of such self-indulgent writing. In most cases, it can either be two perspectives: the writer’s or the audience’s. From the writer’s case, self-indulgent writing can be harder to spot without doing some digging, as when presented with a story with little idea as to whom is writing it and what they’ve experienced, it’s hard to criticize the piece for being so self-indulgent to the writer(s) themselves. In internet culture, it’s most common in the form of Mary Sues/Gary Stus, where the main character or characters receive special treatment from everyone around them to unrealistic levels. Even so, Mary Sues/Gary Stus may not be inherently self-indulgent to the writers themselves, but perhaps overembellishing through the promotion for personal social or political beliefs.
What is more prominent, and what I personally find more problematic, is the indulgence through the perspective of the audience, whereas the self-indulgent writing aims to have the viewer supplant a bland protagonist to immerse themselves within the world’s self-serving fantasy. This is the scenario in which many series of the last few years take advantage of for the sake of chasing trends and obtaining popularity and praise, and the primary motivator for elaborating on this subject. With introductions out of the way, let’s talk about my issues with “escapism.”
A disclaimer just beforehand: I don’t think every show that employs self-indulgent writing is inherently bad and destined for the garbage bin. Some series such as Konosuba do a pleasant job of taking this aspect and turning it on its head whilst still adhering enough to its typical intentions to make it enjoyable for both those for and against it. Only through my personal experience do I find that (much) more often than not, this type of writing ends up either boring me or making me cringe. It’s not a 100% instakill for a series to overindulge in some areas. It’s all a matter of what any individual series chooses to do with it.
With that, the segue into my first argument comes to light: What does it do? Self-indulgent writing gives viewers that warm, fuzzy feeling of involving themselves in impossible adventures that reward them with power, fame, personal glory, and women (or men). And… that’s pretty much it. From what I’ve seen, that’s pretty much the gist of what anime with self-indulgent writing accomplishes. Character development is fairly minimal due to the heavy focus on the main protagonist, who is strictly bland to become more supplantable, and side characters are often tied to impressing/supporting the main protagonist, because self-indulgent writing. The stories are often bare-boned because the formula involves one of two scenarios: the protagonist conquers every problem without fail because it’s convenient or they’re knocked down just to get back up even stronger through THE POWER OF EMOTIONS!!! because everyone loves the underdog story. Just the act of making the main character feel like the light that guides the series through the darkness already serves as a major detractor from what I would consider a good, memorable, or impactful story.
The most common offenders of overusing self-indulgent writing include the Shounen, Shoujo, Harem, and Isekai genres. Shounen and Shoujo are likely because they’re aimed at younger audiences who don’t normally care for complicating core stereotypical entertainment (drama and romance for girls, action and thrillers for boys). Harem because the very idea of having multiple men or women chase after one is kind of self-indulgent already. And then Isekai is the most creative use of self-indulgent writing, and perhaps the genre with the most potential for doing more with itself (Konosuba is, after all, an Isekai title). Even so, many Isekai are paired with harems or the previously mentioned topic of Mary Sues/Gary Stus, resulting in a bonanza of self-indulgent writing.
Of recent memory, titles within each genre that employed a disgusting amount of self-indulgent writing for me include Watashi ga Motete Dousunda for Shoujo and Harem, DanMachi for Isekai, and… wow, it’s been a while since I’ve watched any notable Shounen title with self-indulgent writing. I guess I could put Drifters up there, though it’s classified as Seinen instead of Shounen… though I’d argue it’s just a bloody Shounen. All of these titles did with the scope, flow, or realism of their stories and characters in a way where it seemed very obvious that their intentions were purely towards catering to a specific audience. It creates a sort of disconnect with me, who enjoys watching series that either enchants through symbolic or bizarre spectacle, or tries to teach some sort of lesson/invoke the basic essentials of emotional empathy.
Leading me to my next point is only a slight alteration of the previous: What can it do? The previous deals with what self-indulgent writing manages to showcase within a piece of fiction; this deals with the potential or possibility of what self-indulgent writing can bring. As stated before, self-indulgent writing can bring the warm, fuzzy feeling of getting all the things one would want due to missing out on them in their own life, or fantasizing about a position where more is possible. What does this do for, say, personal growth? Life lessons? Social commentary? Anything more than just “Check out this reality.” Self-indulgent writing is just devoid of substance important to me. I watch stories to connect with characters, which I already clarified earlier are cardboard due to the importance of the main character, or to be enthralled by gripping stories with weight and consequences. I tend to be fond of pieces that challenge my interpretation of what’s good and bad, right or wrong, or simply go against common themes or tropes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a written masterpiece, but at least give the impression that the intentions aren’t so short-sighted.
I think it’s time to provide some counterpoints to what I’m trying to address; the part where I predict why any of this may not matter to the majority of audiences out there. What all of my own criticisms come down to is that it’s perhaps too simple, doesn’t evoke any sort of deserved mental stimulation (as in through build-up and such), or feels too comfortable in only fondling the discreet urges of the common anime fan. What it all amounts to is this: Does this all even matter? So what if self-indulgent writing is what it is? So what if it’s “escapist”? So what if I think it’s simple or it lacks any substance? For some, I’m sure all that matters is if it succeeds in where it wants to: indulging the fan in some high-grade fantasy fun. Fiction is special in that it means something different for everyone, and what it means to me is that it should strive to be crafted with the heart and the brain. Some don’t care about that, and a lot of this may seem as though I’m whining that anime isn’t smart enough for me or whatever else. I can respect that.
Making it this far, what would constitute as an example of self-indulgent writing in anime? Let’s make a handy-dandy list with examples from specific titles:
- DanMachi: The female Goddess character who houses the male lead is in love with him at the very beginning of the series (hence no build-up) and jealously fights with perceived threats.
- No Game No Life: The male lead is an outcast NEET who is useless to his current reality; upon entering the alternate dimension, the skills he built up through incessant video game playing suddenly make him a strategic genius and are the most useful trait one can possibly have.
- ReLIFE: The entire premise of the series (What if you could go back to the past and start over???).
- Dog Days: The male lead is a Gary Stu.
- Fruits Basket: The female lead is a Mary Sue.
- Overlord: The male lead commands an army of darkness and is almost God-like in his abilities and through the eyes of his followers.
- Toradora! (See?): Male lead just so happens to attract the attention of a Rie Kugimiya tsun-loli, an insane person, and a cynical model by being special, I guess.
Multiple others instances throughout the course of anime’s history could be noted, but I don’t have years to spend on the topic. As one can deduce, self-indulgent writing can either be the entire focus of an anime or a single piece of the entire puzzle. As would be obvious, the more prominent this type of writing is, the more likely I am to not care for a particular series. It doesn’t feel real to me, or deserved, or is ultimately inconsequential. Such things don’t concern others while it usually bothers me greatly.
With that said, I don’t like self-indulgent writing. I don’t like it in anime, manga, films, or anything else for that matter, and the reasons are (hopefully) clear to see. The trend of creating more and more shows that, at least on the surface, follow this formula makes me wary of the future, though I understand that fads or trends tend to die out sooner or later (at least to a major degree). Should anyone have any more counterarguments for this piece, I’d love to hear them, so feel free to comment and I’ll likely discuss it like a civil adult and only call you an idiot a maximum of three times. Thanks for reading!