For as long as it has been around, there have been anime set in high school. High school stories are a time-honoured trope that isn’t exclusive to Japan by any means; shows like Buffy, Smallville, and Glee all told the stories of characters of a similar age to anime like Fruits Basket, Quintessential Quintuplets, and, of course, My Dress-Up Darling.
The difference, more often than not, is that anime often presents a more sexualised take on these school-age characters, usually with copious physics-defying fan-service. This can be a fine line to tread and one that some shows cope with better than others.
With episode 11 of My Dress-Up Darling going further than most in terms of its portrayal of teenagers in sexual situations, many people have rightly questioned why this age group is so often at the centre of anime plots.
Why are so many anime set in high school?
Anime has, for generations, portrayed a romanticised version of high school. Student council presidents wield sweeping, unchecked power, teachers range from criminally overbearing to downright ignorant, and choosing a sports club is the most important decision a student can ever make. But why this fascination with a time that no one remembers with fondness?
Part of it has to do with the age range that shows are directed toward. Though Japan is light years ahead of the west in terms of creating quality animation specifically aimed at adults, anime is still broadly consumed by teenagers around the world. Many creators choose to age their characters similar to their target audience. This makes them easier to relate to for many young people, who like to see themselves as the heroes of the stories they consume.
Another reason why many anime and games are set in and around high school is because it is one of the last experiences shared by the vast majority of the people who watch or play them. Not everyone goes to college or university. Not everyone gets an office job or even works at all. After the age of 18, we all go off in different directions, becoming different people, but high school is the last place that almost every single person has memories of and can therefore relate to. It’s where you learn to define yourself — and decide where to go from there.
Whether you remember high school fondly or as the miserable cesspool of hormones and teenage brutality that it actually was, most of us know what to expect from a high school setting, making it an easy place to put your characters regardless of the content you’re delivering.
High school characters and fanservice
Here at Rice Digital, we love our fanservicey content, and that includes the video games, visual novels, anime, manga and light novels set in high school. There is nothing inherently wrong with portraying these characters as sexual beings – we shouldn’t deny that teenagers are sexual beings, and stigmatising them for it causes far more harm than good. We should absolutely give young people a realistic portrayal of themselves and the things they might be feeling — so I don’t think having anime set in high school is a bad thing.
Shows like My Dress-Up Darling have a difficult balancing act in giving us teenagers who are the bundle of nerves and hormones that we all were at that time and not crossing the line into overtly graphic sexualisation of underage people. And not every show gets that quite right — plus individuals’ tolerance for such things varies, too.
There is a whole discussion to be had about the age of consent, particularly when a medium is localised for an international market and said law varies from territory to territory — but for the purposes of anime and surrounding media set in high school it is important to consider the intention of the content. Is its main purpose to arouse the viewer, or is the story the main objective, with everything else being set dressing with that goal in mind?
It’s not always a straightforward answer, either. The thoroughly NSFW work The Job of a Service Committee Member, for example, is marketed as pure hentai — but reading it reveals there’s actually much more to it than simple smut. There’s a strong sense of atmosphere, biting social commentary, understandable cynicism and dark humour — and a strong argument to be made that says all that is the actual point of the work, regardless of its apparent intentions.
All that being said, I would still love to see more RPGs and anime set in the years beyond high school. These are the years where people discover even more of who they are as they get their first taste of freedom — as well as the increased sense of responsibility that comes with it.
Shows like Rent-a-Girlfriend have proven that the college-age range works just as well for these slice-of-life romance stories, adding in the wrinkle of independent living that anime set in high school don’t usually get to include.
As our illustrious editor Pete pointed out during the recent controversy around the Cyanotype Daydream Steam release, if you’re watching these shows or playing these games for nothing more than the titillating views, you’re really missing the point of what makes them so good. The fanservice is really more of a seasoning rather than the main course in these creative works, but it’s worth remembering that there can be a fine line between to walk when you have characters of a high school age engaged in overtly sexual situations.
Keep all that stuff firmly in the land of fantasy where it belongs and we should be all good!
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