Anime, unlike western cartoons, often contain more mature and serious themes targeted towards teens and young adults. And yet, despite the audience range from 10 to 40 years old, most anime have high school protagonists. Indeed it seems like one’s entire life revolves around high school, and once you’re out of it, you’ve entered a midlife crisis that consists of boring, dull and lifeless experiences. It’s undeniable. The main characters of popular anime are always young, and 99% likely to be in high school, which brings me to the reasons for this phenomenon: Anime seems to have this conception that high school is the pinnacle of drama, change, and defining traits. Much like in most TV shows, anime can contain an excessively dramatized romance plot that we all know rarely happens in life. The idea of the crush on a beautiful member of the opposite gender is just too entertaining to pass up. In addition, the social mishaps and awkwardness of teens seem to be excused by the fact that these young adults are going through that “transition” in their lives. In other words, the awkward and social outcast attempting to gain the affection of the popular and beautiful member of the opposite gender is amusing and cute.
But it’s not just romance that is depicted completely out of proportion compared to real high school life. In anime, high school is also where teens are faced with the most gripping moral decisions, terrifying and violent encounters, loss of close ones, and the list goes on. I can think of no better example than Code Geass, an anime that takes place in a world where Japan is dominated and discriminated by an empire, Britannia. Lelouch, an intellectually brilliant high school student (what a surprise) is the main character of the series. Lelouch also just so happens to gain the supernatural power of the Geass, which enables him to force a person to obey his command. But it’s not enough that this element was thrown at him, he takes it upon himself to destroy the Britannia empire and regain independence for Japan to provide a safe country for his close ones to live in. It’s amazing how much Lelouch goes through, from witnessing deaths of many friends to ultimate sacrifices—makes our SAT qualms and college decisions seem rather trivial. Which is, perhaps, why we enjoy it so much. Anime seems to place such a high significance on high school by attaching moral, heroic, tragic or romantic events to the lives of those protagonists, and we instinctively find them to be vicarious.
Indeed, perhaps anime studios find that the adult life is too disillusioning to cater to its audiences. The younger audience wants relatable characters that are exaggerated versions of their idealized protagonist while the older audience simply wants to escape from their boring, repetitive job.
This concept of a disillusioned, worn down adult is especially distinct in the character designs of anime. Nearly all high school anime characters embody youth not only in personality, but also in physical appearance. No matter if an anime character is socially awkward or charismatic, the character is likely to look physically appealing as long as he or she is a young adult. However in often the same anime series, adults are depicted with wrinkles and smaller eyes (belying the typically more appealing large anime eyes) in a way that does not allow them to be more than side characters. The few anime that do have adult main characters often do not sell as well in Japan no matter how good quality they are. Ultimately, like any industry, anime is driven by money so they produce shows that can guarantee a certain amount of revenue. In short, high school anime characters simply look better, even if real young adults may look far less or more mature than their age.
The standards to which anime upholds high school to are not unfounded of course. In a community of college and/or hormone driven, scientifically proven more rash teens, drama definitely characterizes the high school life. Nevertheless, the drama is blown to enormous proportions in anime, ranging from obsessed love interests to virtual reality survival game players to those who think they can judge the entire world.
No one said anime had to be realistic. For young adults, there is an addicting appeal in watching something both detached from reality and also relatable out of age. For older adults, the adventures of youth are always welcomed. Nevertheless, to say that high school is the culmination of one’s life is a statement that only holds in the anime realms.