What It Means to Be “Tryhard” in Anime (Or Fiction in General)

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[This post was inspired by Karandi of 100wordanime’s “Why We Need to Stop Mocking Stories for Trying” post.]

If one was to search “tryhard” with my blog’s search box on the front page, they would find eight articles within the past two-ish years in which I used the word in a post. To be honest, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more cases of it, as it’s something I tend to say quite often (perhaps only in my head?). Of course, people can simply say things and assume people know what they mean by it, but I decided to take the road I paved without taking safety checks and am finally getting to those safety checks—to ensure that everyone is aware of what I’m talking about when I use the term as a form of negative criticism.

While this post is inspired directly by another’s, that isn’t insinuating that I’m taking the same argument or direction of said inspirational post. Karandi felt the need to point out that people are simply stating “This anime tries too hard” and leaves it at that: a vague and easy negative criticism that tends to be a generalization without further explanation. Similarly to that of labeling No Game No Life as “fan service” and leaving it at that. It discredits the other aspects of the series that may be appealing to others and undermines possible positive attributes to the negative term itself; “Trying too hard” implies it’s at least trying, and “fan service” implies the show cares about making a (admittedly limited) portion of the audience (“fans”) happy.

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However, looking at it from Karandi’s choice of title alone, I disagree to some extent: we should mock stories for trying… too hard, at least. This should go without saying, but stories that try too little, or not at all, should receive equal amounts of mocking, as regular visitors of my blog are fully aware that stories that don’t try tend to make me want to bring a gun to my head. What it all amounts to for me is the aspect of a balance.

Personally, I prefer the minimalist route, where a story tends to take a more relaxed route and lets the visuals do the storytelling or is predicated on “deep,” insightful, and careful dialogue. Even this, however, can prove to be a perilous task, as certain dialogue cues or even word choice can alter a scene dramatically, from a work of “art” to a cheesy mess. Many criticize Neon Genesis Evangelion for trying too hard with its dialogue, particularly during the last few episodes where everything is a distinctly psychotic mess of distorted perception and existentialism. Though for me, the psychological aspects of the series building up to that point allow me to believe that such a mental breakdown would occur, especially with how mentally unstable many of the characters are. That sort of “balance,” in which I can believe that the dialogue or the events happening onscreen in front of me can feasibly happen, helps it escape the “tryhard” label.

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This isn’t simply limited to the qualifications of realism in a series, as some people really couldn’t care less if a situation was realistic or not, particularly within fantasy. That said, there’s a certain point for every person to have that disconnect from a series for trying too hard, whether to be dramatic, funny, or tragic. Looking at it from a comedic aspect, I for one found Nichijou to be rather tryhard, which I’m well aware would result in many people telling me that’s “the point” or that I’m taking the series too seriously. But for me, having a single joke drag on and on and on and on for close to three minutes, with the sheer overexaggeration of normal, everyday life being the one joke tends to wear thin, especially since the series is two-cour.

There’s a nice moment in ralphthemoviemaker’s A Million Ways to Die in the West video where he criticizes a scene in which a character played by Neil Patrick Harris suddenly develops severe diarrhea and begins to shit in his hat. The scene lasts close to twenty seconds, in which Harris simply makes obscene facial expressions and sounds appropriate for the situation drag on and on and on. The film is trying too hard to make the scene funny by prolonging it past the point where some could conceivably find it funny. The result is an awkward gap of screentime that could’ve been served to provide another, better joke or to simply move the plot along, as well as an abrupt break in pacing. Such is the same with my impressions of Nichijou, only instead of a twenty-second scene, it’s an entire episode full of situations ranging from two-to-five minutes that are never funny to me past a certain point.

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Allow me to provide an example of tryhard involving a certain situation that turned me off so much that I ended up dropping the subject on the spot. Said subject is Sword Art Online, and I really don’t mean to rag on this series so much, but it’s no secret that I don’t care for the anime whatsoever. I will take an excerpt straight from the post I wrote on the series three years ago, when I only made it through six episodes (also spoilers?):

There was a man named Grimlock. He was married to a woman named Griselda. His guild, at one point, found a rare ring and decided to sell it for money towards the guild by rule of vote. Griselda goes to sell the ring and never returns. By the end of this particular arc, it’s revealed that Grimlock hired assassins to kill his wife while she was out selling the ring. Why did he do this?

‘Because she changed. She was no longer the woman I loved.’

[. . .] And then Asuna [sic] simply says:

‘That’s not love. That’s possession.’

And Grimlock looks shocked and awed as if this never crossed his mind ever. He doesn’t argue with her. He doesn’t do anything. He just kinda looks like he needs to shit and that’s pretty much it.

Let me wrap this up: An adult, who killed his wife because he didn’t like her becoming ‘more lively,’ was told by a teenager that he was wrong and he took it like it was scripture from the Bible, with little trepidation.

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Now, some of this analysis I no longer agree with, particularly parts I spliced out and the idea that Grimlock should have realized that what he was feeling for his wife isn’t love. There’s a whole slew of mental illnesses that could prevent him from thinking rationally about his position, and one could ultimately consider him to be psychotic in some fashion, as I feel the point of it was. What still stands, however, is the placement of the main characters in this story. The need to have Asuna make a grandiose statement that makes her look like the purveyor of justice and the all-knowing guru of life’s struggles and distinctions. The term “teenager” was thrown in there intentionally: these are essentially kids chastising a mentally-impaired adult about how he’s mentally impaired. With the already blatant manner of self-serving writing attributed to these characters and their plot armor and what-not, it simply felt like an overflow of egotism that I really didn’t care for. In short, they tried too hard to make the heroes look cool and/or righteous—essentially perfect. Self-indulgent writing, just to add another term to this list of terms.

Oh, and to add one more point to that, Grimlock doesn’t fight back against the accusation, as if he just then realizes the error of his ways. I would think anyone else would, yet he doesn’t. So is he actually mentally-impaired? Or did he have a brief psychotic episode? Or did the writing just serve to make Asuna look better? I’d bet on the last point.

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So while not always the case, when I generally speak of a series being too “tryhard,” it’s the equivalent of a series distancing me from the perception of reality it presents, therefore making it harder for me to take a (serious) series seriously or finding a non-serious series entertaining. In most cases, the effect of tryhard dramas or romances is that it makes outlandish twists and turns that make me think “Okay, this series is dumb and fake,” as the best dramas/romances (assuming they aren’t fantasy-based) are ones that are relatable in a humanistic way, full of empathy and wholesome/tragic actions that one can see themselves getting involved with. It’s this aspect that makes White Album 2 better than Golden Time.

Thus, if a story is trying too hard, one should tell it to stop, and if it doesn’t, mock it. When a person tells a joke that makes a group of people laugh, then gets cocky and proceeds to tell five more jokes that are similar to, but not as funny as, the original joke to no laughter, they’re trying too hard, and you tell them to stop. Repetition in comedy, level of disbelief in drama. Got it? Sweet. See you next week.

4 thoughts on “What It Means to Be “Tryhard” in Anime (Or Fiction in General)

  1. I’d have to agree that the scene with Grimlock and Asuna is definitely plagued with some self-indulgent writing. Of all the sections of the Aincrad Arc of SAO, that one is probably the one that I feel really wasn’t necessary overall and was a low point mid-way along the arc (then again, I’m a fan of the show so even though it was a low point I did enjoy it). But again, I wouldn’t label that trying too hard. I would just say it was self-indulgent, or poorly written. It conveys more clearly what the problem is.
    Then again, your point with comedy that overstays its welcome is fairly on point. It is hard to describe it as anything else other than trying too hard when the joke itself potentially could have worked if it hadn’t overstayed its welcome or been repeated so often it was run into the ground.
    Thanks for providing an interesting perspective on the topic of tryhard anime.

  2. Very good points. It’s always a question of balance. To do something without overdoing it, that is a balance which seems to be becoming a bit rare these days. People either try to do too much and end up doing too little (Black Clover comes to mind, though I only saw the first episode of that before dropping it in order to preserve my brain cells) or they go the other direction and underdo it and overdo the underdoing. Balance, people. Balance.

    Excellent post!

  3. Sorry that I don’t have any sage words to bring to the discussion, but I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading your post!

    But I did wince at your criticism of Nichijou (it being one of my favourite shows). However, I can see why its repetition of some gags and over-commitment to others (were you thinking about the hairband origin story gag?) might be a turn-off for some! Hey, different strokes for different folks, right?

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