Look, anime fans. Let’s have a serious talk here. We all love anime that have a great plot, right? Right. Shows like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Steins;Gate, and Gintama’ didn’t make it to the top of MAL’s rankings for no reason. Fans recognized these shows, not only for their great animation style, but for their expertly crafted storylines, character development, settings, and overall plot. Almost every anime season has at least one (sometimes even two!) anime shows that rise above the rest with memorable characters and plotlines that are so impressively well-written that they reel the audience in, refusing to let us go. If you happen to catch them while they’re still airing, you find yourself waiting on pins and needles every week, eagerly awaiting the release of the next episode. And if you happen to find them after they’ve finished airing, well... twenty-four hours later, you’ll have binged through every episode of every season. When anime is good, when the writers have dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, viewers are blessed with an unforgettable experience.
Cue the Cute Girls!
But hiding in the seemingly large crevices of the industry is a not-so-hidden truth: sex sells. Sure, this is pretty much the standard with any media-based industry. But let’s not kid ourselves here. The anime industry is just about as bad as it gets when it comes to splashing alluring female characters on the screen to increase views and sales. For every anime with an excellent plot, there seem to be 20 that fumble through the story like Naruto through a pick-up line. And yet the industry still keeps pumping out poorly written story after poorly written story. They almost invariably do well, to varying degrees. People buy the manga. They watch the anime (secretly, with the lights out, when nobody is watching). Why? The cheap thrills achieved through the use of (often teenaged) adorably drawn female characters.
This is not to say that good anime with great plots don’t have cute girls as well. They do. But expertly designed, perhaps even artisanal (yeah, you read that right) anime storylines do not need the cute girls to be good. People won’t rate them highly because they are replete with moe. No, great anime earn their high ratings through the intensity of their character development, the fascinating depth of their hidden truths, their unique and imaginative perspectives. Replace the cute girls with unattractive female characters and you’ll still be left with a solid and unshakable plot.
Who’s to Blame?
The situation begs several questions. One is perhaps the most obvious: who’s to blame? Should we anime fans be looking sheepishly at our collective feet, our faces shadowed with shame? Or should we be eyeing the studios, writers, animators who seem to keep throwing these poorly written, cute-girl-filled anime at us season after season? Or, should we be throwing up our hands, cursing the stars in Shakespearean angst, damning the immaterial and irrepressible nature of a society lost to the whims of sexual fantasy?
Truth be told, it’s probably a little bit of all of those. We don’t need to point out any anime in particular as horrendous examples of plotless girlfests (coughcough BIKINI WARRIORS coughhackwheeze). But we all know what makes or breaks a good plot. “Cute girls” simply don't. They’re often used to supplement the lack of a plot, but plot device they are not. Not in the sense of crafting a good plot, anyway. Most anime fans worth their salt can easily identify examples of cute-girl anime that they’ve guiltily watched out of boredom, with the sole justification lying somewhere between “at least the characters are cute” and “at least it’s not hentai”.
Cute Girls: The Newest Trend?
This particular trend toward shirking plot and going all-in with the cute girls is not a particularly new one, but it’s certainly one that hasn’t always been common in the industry. Indeed, even going back to the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, many anime weren’t focused on throwing cute girls in short skirts on the screen, but rather delivering stories. Actual stories. The first popular anime series, Tetsuwan Atom, was a far cry from what we have today. Even the late ’60s and ’70s, a period when one might expect to find the “free love” movement in just about everything, mostly gave us clothed super heroes, mecha, and Mach GoGoGo. Female characters, for the most part, were either asexual adults, or adorable small children.
It’s hard to say what really changed in the industry that led to the current state of things. It’s easy to imagine many a feminist’s head exploding at the substitution of plot for attractive female characters, all thinly drawn and wholly unrealistic. It’s also easy to see why this same archetype is constantly repeated. It works in just about any aspect of the industry that involves making money. Interestingly enough, some of the best anime, the ones we praise for their storylines, are scheduled for the late night slots in Japan, right alongside moe. It provides an interesting contrast, but certainly speaks volumes as to the viewing habits of mature and adult anime fans.
Does it Really Matter?
Should we care that so many shun plots, and instead opt for a visual appeal that lacks substance? Yes, and no. At the end of the day, many studios produce a healthy mixture of both hard-hitting anime with great storylines and more niche anime that, while not particularly the highest selling, result in some of the best viewing experiences. Even venerated studio White Fox has dug its hands in the muck a few times with anime like SoniAni: Super Sonico the Animation. Morally questionable or not, there’s one thing that always stays true about cute anime girls: they sure are an easy sell for merch!