The coming of age story is defined as a narrative that follows a young person through their transition from childhood to maturity, whether the setting of it involves fighting dragons or maths homework. Either way, the protagonist/s have a pivotal moment on their journey and a lesson they learn that propels their character development and essentially says something profound about the adult world that they’re now more in tune with. Everyone was a kid and a teenager at some point, so it’s kind of a universal theme.
A lot of anime is aimed at young people, which explains why there are so many school uniforms fluttering around since the high school experience is the one most relatable to the target audience (and also they’ve kind of elevated to pop culture cult-interest status, but that’s another story). With adolescents involved and being sought out as an audience, the medium is full of stories about the trials and tribulations of growing up. I wondered, as one does, if the conventions were the same as one would find in the Western YA fiction market.
A note before we begin a somewhat lengthy, ponderous and example-filled post: I make an effort not to generalise when talking about anime since it’s a medium rather than a genre, with the same range of content between high fantasy and slice-of-life sitcoms that Americans and Europeans find in their live-action TV. However, for the purposes of this article I do note that a lot of the same cultural conventions remain the same throughout anime series, understandably enough—a lot of them have a similar sense of humour and values and will be affected by the climate that they were made in and the audience they’re made for. And in this case, whether hard-hitting or escapist, that is the teenager.
My most recent escapade into the anime world is Chunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai (Love, Eighth-Grader Syndrome & Other Delusions), which looks tongue-in-cheek at the phenomenon of “eighth-grader syndrome” and the universal theme of young adults trying to burn away the memory of the embarrassing crap they did when they were fourteen years old and trying to be cool.
Yuuta, our everyman protagonist, grew an obsession with the totally awesome business of pop culture occultism, leaving him a year later with notepads filled with bad drawings, fake swords and costumes of his former persona ‘Dark Flame Master’ (which is uttered like many associated things always in English, I notice, and ponder that this is kind of a spiritual reverse of the “weeaboo” affliction that young adolescents are notorious for where they take, as Chunibyo says, their newfound self-awareness and active imaginations and become obsessed with Japan to the point of half-assedly emulating cultural practices they’ve seen in anime and spouting gratuitous Japanese. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side…), which he thought was uber cool at the time but is now so embarrassing it causes him physical pain.
Now that, I’m afraid to say, is something I feel a lot of us can relate to with cringe-tugging clarity whether we went down the Dark Flame Master path or not. The growing up here is forced and self-manufactured by the painfully self-conscious and appears in all sorts of forms in all sorts of characters over the series. The show hits the nail on the head with its portrayal of the greatest ambition of a lot of teenagers: forming a new image of themselves and seeking approval from the tribe, a theme that runs deeply, though is not always advised on a shallow level, in a lot of real-world growing up stories, especially the works of authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Lauren Myracle and anything that ends with a “do what makes you happy and don’t blindly follow what’s popular” message.
ToraDora is another of my favourites and fits perfectly into the vein of comedy that fleshes out into character drama and coming of age story, the lesson therein being that the people you think you like aren’t always who you should and that everyone has hidden baggage. After a drawn-out and tangled matchmaking quest the protagonists come out more mature and emotionally open and, in place of the superficial and frantic obsession with romance they had before, the acceptance that sometimes things cannot be and that’s alright. This is another recognisable theme, becoming more popular in YA in place (mercifully) of the be-all-and-end-all teen romance, especially and heartbreakingly prevalent in David Levithan and John Green’s writing.
The male lead in ToraDora has many similar aspects to Yuuta, actually, including being swept from underneath the social radar by a slightly eccentric tiny girl who draws attention to herself whether he likes it or not (and has a heart-tearingly sad backstory hidden away). This is also the same trope that starts Hyouka, in fact, where a girl obsessed sparkly-eyed with solving mysteries gets tangled up in the life of a boy trying desperately to be boring, and even Anohana to some extent (except she’s a ghost) and any coin in the machine of the “magical girlfriend” genre.
Perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as we know it is still prevalent and popular, running around inducing character development in not-yet-heroes with her own brand of story-starting glitter. Though it’s worth noting that a lot of these female leads, especially in the examples mentioned, experience development beyond their shallow archetypes over the course of their series. Anime may be trope-heavy at times, but often not without good reason (most often it’s parody or deconstruction, since the fan culture around it is so self-aware. Or, of course, it could just be lazy writing).
ToraDora also demonstrates perfectly two of the most weirdly popular anime archetypes involving parents, with Taiga’s estranged, leaving her in her own apartment, and Ryuji’s mother providing more fan service and comic relief than maternal advice. While exaggerated for comedy and convenience, this plays heavily into a crucial element of the coming of age story, which is learning that one’s parents aren’t infallible and coming to understand them as people with all of their flaws, or, just breaking free of their influence and care anyway since everything that makes the plot a plot is coming from friends and relationships outside the home.
Goodness knows there are plenty of absent parents in YA, though it’s more likely to fuel the drama than avert it and hopeless, late-working, alcoholic or promiscuous guardians are rarely used for comedy. Either way, the protagonists are to fend for themselves—there’s a symbolic leaving of the nest involved in all growing up narratives, whether it’s through manning the house or leaving it on an epic quest.
Because of course, there’s no character development like the stuff fuelled by magic or sci-fi. Situations like having to fight weird-looking giants for the safety of the last of humanity or crash-landing on a watery planet and conflicting with local political philosophies give the heroes a boost into their battle with impending maturity. Especially in situations where it’s forced upon them after, say, losing an arm and a leg to botched alchemy or being shoved by your maniacal father into a mecha. Popular Western fantasy and sci-fi adventures are often headed by young adults, whether it’s Suzanne Collins’ escapades with dystopias and violence or Scott Westerfeld throwing young heroes into steampunk wars. If there’s unnatural mayhem going on, chances are some darn kids are going to get into it and it’s going to teach them something.
It also helps that in a lot of these fantastical and immediately more dangerous scenarios there’s a good chance the main characters can be pullin’ a Batman, as they say, which gets the “leaving the nest” happening with an extra dose of development-inducing tragedy which will naturally affect different young protagonists in different ways. It certainly worked wonders for Harry Potter.
It also gives us the Magical Girl, a female-specific coming of age magic adventure for brighter or darker. The genre can explore the pressures of growing up as a subplot to fighting evil by moonlight or as a symbolic part of the magical mechanics themselves, like in Madoka Magica where the girls are preyed on and swindled into becoming magical warriors by a deceptively cute creature that could represent anything from media predators to Mephistopheles. Or the much-debated Kill La Kill where the heroine is shoved into a ridiculously revealing outfit, a metaphor (in theory) for the pressures of body image and the sleazy male gaze placed on maturing girls, and becomes more powerful the less shame and more positivity she has about her body.
Either way, these stories, whether they’re slice-of-life or adventures through fantasy, all feature young protagonists that grow, learn and transition from one perspective to another, whether the overarching lesson they get out of it is that friendship and swimming make life better, love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, no one should be blindly idolised or that people die when they’re killed.
A lot of conventions differ due to cultural set-up, for example the Western media doesn’t have the “hobby club shenanigans” story-starter (which accounts for half of Kyoto Animation’s projects, I swear) since extracurricular groups aren’t so much an enforced thing, and a lot of the American teenager stereotypes and Mean Girls-esque cliquey story arcs don’t show up in Japanese fiction because school-based social structure and general outward attitude tends to evolve in different ways. There are also naturally different attitudes to dating and romance on either end of the spectrum, which will impact the portrayal and telling of any young love stories at hand.
However, though the differences in base culture will inescapably make their mark on a work of fiction, it’s interesting to note that a lot of the same conventions and themes appear in growing up narratives across the world and the mediums. I suppose that tells you something about the human condition—whether you can dive straight into anime with stylistic preference, teenagers and former teenagers the world over can see themselves in these stories of the comedic chaos and terror of adolescence. We’ve all been there, zany, dramatic or otherwise, and the coming of age story is a genuinely universal one.