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Moe, Slice of Life, Westerns, and Rob Liefeld – Part Two

January 18, 2010

Part One can be found here.

In the thrilling conclusion: How westerns and slice of life anime series are nostalgic for time periods that never occurred.

The western as we know it didn’t come into existence until The Virginian was published in 1902. While stories about “The West” and various historical figures existed before that time, The Virginian is the first novel that follows many of the stereotypes that people have come to expect from the genre. It has the outsider coming into a small western town and getting involved with the town’s troubles. It has the damsel in need of said hero’s aid and a villain of sorts who needs to be thwarted to ensure the damsel’s safety and heart. Almost everything that you’ve seen in a John Wayne movie, spaghetti western, or any other western movie or TV series owes its existence, to some degree, to this novel.

The catch is that The Virginian is keenly aware of the fact that the lifestyle portrayed is tenuous at best. At the end of the novel, that way of life is all but over and the characters acknowledge that “civilization” isn’t something relegated to the east; civilization and urban culture was always there and it has to be embraced in order to continue on in life. With The Virginian, the cowboy way of life wasn’t something that could or should be perpetuated, and that’s how it played out in real life. “The West” as depicted in movies never really existed. It’s a romanticized ideal that’s fashioned to depict “how things ought to be” rather than “how things were back in the day.” It’s just as much a fantasy as The Odyssey. The Man with No Name has just as much basis in the reality of the American West as Perseus and other Greek heroes have in the history of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Most people are aware of this fact. They know that most of these stories are exaggerations at best. The catch is that they try to make this fantasy a reality. Not so much in terms of events but in values and attitudes.

I live in South Texas. Not a day goes by that I don’t see a bumper sticker that says “God Bless John Wayne.” A lot of the restaurants in small Hill Country towns have walls plastered with The Alamo movie memorabilia and the like. Wearing a cowboy hat is just as normal as wearing a baseball cap. People do this because they want to emulate the attitudes they see in westerns. They like the rugged individualism. They like the “take it into our hands” view on law and justice. The like the disdain for eastern/urban attitudes. There’s a reason why Texas leans considerably more to the “right” politically, and it has just as much to do with conservative values mirroring the John Wayne ideal as it does religious values and other factors (I think the Libertarian party is more “cowboy” than the Republicans, but that’s just my own political bias speaking.).

People are essentially looking back on the ideals presented in westerns and saying “I wish things were the same as they were back then.” What they’re really doing is trying to bring a system of beliefs that never really existed into reality, and they’ve been successful to a certain extent. People’s nostalgia for movies and TV series they saw as children has become codified into a way of life.

As far as I can tell, the very same thing is occurring within anime fandom, with moe and slice of life series replacing the western.

Many of the series that show young kids going about their school lives are an idealized depiction. The problems that one encounters in school, such as grades, relationships, sex, drugs, family issues, peer pressure, and whatever else are downplayed at most. If someone bombs all of their exams it’s played off as a joke. There’s no potential for the character to actually flunk out, since all of those bad grades will be routinely ignored and one magical test will come along and save them by allowing them to graduate with one passing grade. Relationships are played out as Victorian courtships. There’s a lot of blushing and awkwardness and not much else. If a character has any other sort of issue, it’s resolved within the context of a single episode and everyone is hunky dory afterwards.

If you’re middle and high school years played out like this, you’re either the second coming of Christ or you’re lying.

Most people have relatively good childhoods. Even if we angst over our lives as a kid, we can look back and say “yeah, I had a good life.” At the same time we went through some degree of shit, and that shit didn’t just resolve itself in a clean, happy way. We got in trouble, and by “trouble” I don’t mean “ha ha ha, the teacher laughed at me, that was a good punch line” trouble. We did stuff that had bad results. We did stuff that we couldn’t laugh at (at least at the time). We most likely had good childhoods, but they weren’t idyllic.

Now watch a slice of life anime. If there’s conflict, it’s easily resolved, but for the most part conflict doesn’t exist. The events of a slice of life anime have no basis in reality. Those “perfect” school years where everyone laughs, eats cake, and does cute and amusing stuff never existed and never will. There might be days where you can sit around and enjoy things like that, but the overall experience is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the mediocre. Even when life is good, life isn’t “slice of life.” Watching kids go through the motions of joining a band, or starting a club, or playing video games, and encountering none of the problems of real life is just as much a fantasy as a 14-year-old piloting a giant robot and killing angels from outer space or a kid shooting lasers from his hands and blowing up mountains. If anything, said robot anime and shounen action anime are  more grounded in reality because it makes no attempt to hide its fantasy elements.

Yes, Goku from Dragonball Z is a more believable character than all of the Clannad, Air, and Kanon girls combined.

And this idealization of “everyday life” is spilling over into reality. We have people who have genuine fetishes for 2D women. They think that the way women are portrayed in these series is some sort of Platonic ideal that can’t exist outside of computer-generated animation cels. Fans emulate their actions based on the male leads in these series. It isn’t as extreme as we see with westerns, but that’s due to the fan base being smaller and newer. We’re seeing the “reality” of moe and slice of life series creeping into the attitudes of it’s fans.

Amusing Aside: About a month ago I went into a little restaurant in Bandera. The whole place was decked out in John Wayne, Alamo, Will Rogers, and other western memorabilia. It was pretty excessive if you ask me, but I get it. A lot of those movies were filmed in this area back in the day, and there’s a good amount of nostalgia for that time period. These places like to show off the fact that one of these celebrities once ate in their restaurant forty years ago. Many of the dishes were named after various celebrities. I was eyeing “The Duke” extra-large chicken fried steak, but opted to go with the regular-sized one.

The point here is that this restaurant was inundated with this sort of stuff. It’s built with the western fan in mind. In that regard I have to imagine that walking into one of these west Texas restaurants is akin to walking into a maid café in Japan. Both places try to immerse you within the particular fandom it represents. A maid café presents you with women dressed in ridiculous clothing and acting like they’re your servant while these restaurants try to overwhelm you with what it’d be like to hang out with the likes of John Wayne.

In the end it’s really the same thing.

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