Anime and high school are practically inseparable. Anime that don’t take place in high school or feature high school-aged characters are far and away the exception to the rule; and the medium seems intent on finding ways to work a high school setting into every conceivable plot or genre. A post-apocalypse show wherein vampires have taken over the world? Better make sure there’s a high school. Bunch of dead teenagers in limbo? Limbo is the high school that my life as an anime journalist takes place in. Why not do a zombie apocalypse in high school? Why not do another one? This isn’t even accounting for the sheer wealth of shows that are just about normal-ass high school, by the way.
High school is so ubiquitous in anime that it’s almost unreal. I’m sure you can think of a reason or two that this would happen off the top of your head, but the sheer omnipresence of it all makes me suspect that there’s a lot more going on here than merely what’s obvious–so I’m gonna break it all down, from the most obvious factors, to the least.
We’ll start with the fact that a huge part of the audience for anime is teenagers; teenagers being people who’ve generally got less going on in their lives than a typical adult, and whose rigid structure of high-school life gives them free time allocated in very regular and predictable bursts; so the act of something like watching a weekly TV show fits right into their schedule. Aside from having the right lifestyle, teenagers also have the right mindset–they’re at an age that turns them into living vacuums of ideas and perspectives, trying to shape their identities and to prepare to embark into the world of adulthood. To put it dramatically, teenagers need art more than anyone else does in order to help them to contextualize their lives and the world around them. They’re the right people to enjoy anime, and have the right schedules to watch it.
But what about marketability? So much of anime is marketed to a niche that’s expected to spend a lot of money on it, so wouldn’t it be more profitable to market to adults who make way more money? Well, the thing about high schoolers is that their money isn’t likely going towards anything important. Whatever money they do make is going to be spent on the things that they care about, rather than on keeping their lives together. [Live action clip.]
If teenagers are the best market force in support of anime, then it only makes sense to try and make anime as relatable for teenagers as possible; and this comes with the added bonus that anything which is relatable for teenagers is also going to be relatable for adults, because adults have been teenagers before. A teenager might not be able to relate to certain adult issues, but an adult can easily put themselves into the shoes of what their own teenage life was like–albeit with increasing difficulty as the years go by.
But all that aside, there’s one really huge factor in what makes high school such a lucrative setting that never gets mentioned, and it might even be that this factor is most potent in Japan specifically: which is, simply, that high school is quite possibly the most interesting time in most people’s lives.
High school is a place where everyone is forced to interact with a huge number of people whom they never would encounter normally. It’s a place where everyone is only expected to do the amount of work that they’re given, and everything else in their life is largely free-form. It’s a place where everyone is trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going with their lives and what they’ll be doing from here on out, and basically making what are probably going to be some of the biggest decisions in their lives.
It’s a hotbed of possibility–and as a narrative backdrop, it’s a place wherein characters can just entirely be themselves and not have to deal with anything; because the experience of school is so universal that it doesn’t even need to be addressed. Like, in spite of how many high school shows there are, almost none of them are actually about doing high school. The reason high school is there is so that we don’t have to ask what the hell these characters are doing when they’re not doing the story–we know exactly what high schoolers would normally be doing.
High school in Japan isn’t quite like high school in America, though. Here, it seems like most kids do all their stumbling over what their future is going to be about either in college or as they fumble into the job market–whereas in Japan, you’re really expected to have your shit figured out by that point; and once you’ve got your shit together, then your life is pretty much just that.
The Japanese work ethic is not to be understated. I mean, if you’ve actually seen one of the couple dozen workplace dramas in anime, then you’ve seen them all. Everyone works–everyone overworks–constantly. “Life,” is just doing your job; and it’s not that you can’t make a great story out of that–plenty of these are great shows–but they really do all tell the same story about the Japanese workplace, no matter what kind of job it is. Most of these shows chose to focus on artistic jobs because those involve more individuality in all the decision-making that goes on, but you’ll never hear about a Japanese artist who made one hit and then rested on their royalties for the rest of their lives. To the Japanese, working and living are basically synonymous–if you’re not working, or at least parenting, then what the hell are you doing with your life?
Well, probably watching anime. About high school. And if not about high school, then about being a deadbeat adult otaku who isn’t doing anything with his life but watching anime about high school–’cause if you’re watching anime and you’re not in high school, then that’s probably a lot more relatable for you. I mean, the guy from I Can’t Understand What My Husband Is Saying makes money from running an anime blog, so that’s basically my life story put to animation–and I’m pretty sure that show is stealth propaganda to try and convince otaku that they’d be happier if they married a hot blonde. It fucking worked, and now I’m depressed.
My point is, that high school occupies this perfect interstice between appealing to the core demographic and customer base of the medium, as well as making it really convenient to write a story about anything other than either working constantly or being crushed under persistent monetary concern, or being a degenerate otaku–which are the three states of Japanese adulthood. And yeah, it’s not like there aren’t tons and tons of manga which are actually about adult issues and aimed at an older audience, but it’s also a hell of a lot easier for an adult to sneak in a chapter of some political gag comic while they’re on a two-hour Tokyo commute or taking a shit or something, as opposed to watching a whole episode of anime.
But thankfully, I think that this is slowly changing. A lot of these three-minute shorts seem to be branching out to an older audience, and as my generation enters the workforce as the first generation to whom watching something on a mobile phone with headphones in public is totally normal, I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more anime that panders to our demographic, without having to cast a net over the younger audience as well. Those shows will be much more cheaply made and shorter, but at least they won’t be about high school; not that I won’t keep watching all this high school shit anyways.
Because the other thing is that at this point, high school in anime hardly means anything. I really think that half of the time, high school is just an excuse to set something in a contemporary setting while accounting for the characters not having jobs. But then again, I think a huge part of what makes a show like Durarara so goddamn great is that it has the balls to make this ridiculous urban fantasy wherein most of the characters are adults with superpowers but they’ve all got comparably mundane and normal job–because it’s not like these people can just exist in a void. I’d love to see more stuff that’s willing to make inventive considerations like this, but then again Durarara is probably the least relatable thing to ever be set in Tokyo in the modern age–and that’s kind of the point in and of itself. Whatever.
Would I like for there to be less anime set in high school and more shows that deal with adult issues? Yes. But I also appreciate that the logistics of that are pretty limiting if you want to keep your story in the scope of reality. Adults have jobs, and lives, and often kids, and all kinds of concerns that would make it hard to bum around with a bunch of sexy girls and fight demons or whatever the hell teenagers are up to these days. Writing a show about adults just requires that much more nuance and attention to detail, and for writing conflicts around the setting and the lives of the characters–which, yes, are all things that automatically make a story more interesting and are traits of many of the best-written stories in existence, but I think we’d be losing something of value if loose, goofy stories that wouldn’t work outside of high school stopped existing. I certainly don’t want to live in a world where anime becomes like American TV dramas which pretty much have to focus on crime and/or law enforcement if they want their adult characters to have lives that are at all interesting.
So yeah, I think that’s why so much of anime takes place in high school; but if you think I’m missing an even bigger detail then let me know in the comments. Check out my other channels for more of me, and support me on patreon if you want to see more videos like this. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!