Have you noticed that Western media can be hailed as innovative and original just by doing something that’s relatively common in anime/manga but not common in Western media? I’ve noticed this brought up a lot. To use some specific examples, with Legend of Korra, Pacific Rim & Disney’s Frozen.
Now, before I start let me make one thing clear. I’m not saying anything negative about any of these works. This isn’t about judgments, positive or negative, on their quality. The reason I’m bringing these three up specifically is just that they were popular works that I’ve heard this mentality about a lot. I’ve had multiple people tell me how innovative Legend of Korra is because it made the bold move of having heavily implied lesbianism, in a work for young teenagers. I’ve heard about how original Pacific Rim is with its narrative of humans piloting giant robots to fight Kaiju. And I’ve been told that I should applaud Frozen for daring to break the Disney formula by being more about the relationship between the girls than it is about the romance with what’s his name and Anna.
There’s just one problem. I’ve seen all of these things far too often for them to really be called innovative or unique elements. There’s nothing wrong with any of them as elements. In fact, I’m fond of all three of those things in media. At least when they’re done well. But I’ve seen a lot of slice of life/ magical girl/ assorted other anime aimed at younger audiences that have heavily implied LGBT characters, see basically the entire Precure franchise, or in some cases, such as Sailor Moon, outright stated LGBT characters. Similarly, I’ve seen a lot of mecha works where the humans are fighting Kaiju (I’m also familiar enough with super sentai that I know it happens a lot in those) and I’ve seen plenty of magical girl/ slice of life anime where the main focus is on the relationships between girls. So, why are these three works specifically heralded for these elements when they aren’t even close to being the first works that have used them? Personally, I think there are three major reasons.
Part of it is just that these works were more mainstream than a lot of anime. And, sadly, when an anime like Sailor Moon gets licensed it’s probably going to be censored so that Haruka and Michiru have more of a platonic relationship. A such, a lot of people are more aware of Legend of Korra ending on a yuri note than they are of the fact that yuri girls are very common in magical girl works. And how many giant robots fought Kaiju in a big Hollywood blockbuster before Pacific Rim? And Frozen is only the second Disney film where there was such an emphasis on the relationship between sisters. Lilo and Stitch did it first, though. Either way it’s not common. I would still argue that these works being better known, at least in the West, doesn’t invalidate all of the other works that have done similar things.
The second reason is just a bit of ethnocentrism. We do have a tendency to separate Western works from Eastern works in our minds. Even if it’s common for Eastern works, we still give Western works credit just because we aren’t used to seeing it from them. Similarly, if we saw an anime that used a common trope to Western media that we weren’t used to seeing from anime we’d probably give that anime credit for innovation just because it’s doing something different for that type of media. However, the fact is that the boundaries between Western and Eastern media don’t matter all that much. In our modern society we can easily get exposure to their media and they can easily get exposed to ours. It’s natural that we’d be influenced by one another. Which is naturally going to lead to tropes and conventions crossing hemispheres. It’s really more of an influence from that other media than it is about true innovation.
The third reason is quite simple. A lot of people like those elements. People want to see more LGBT characters appear in works for young audiences. We want to see more giant robots fighting Kaiju and we want to see more works where the relationship between women is an important element. Because everywhere we look we see media where everyone is straight, action movies about an over-muscled bloke with guns instead of a giant robot and pieces of media where there’s one token lady character or where the women don’t really have relationships with other women. As such, works like Legend of Korra, Pacific Rim & Frozen are a breath of fresh air and we praise them because we want to see more things follow in their footsteps. I understand that.
However, you can call works like that a breath of fresh air because you don’t see those elements very often without pretending like they’re completely unique and no one else has ever done them. After all, they don’t have to be completely original or “boundary pushing” to do what they did in a compelling way. Praise them for it if they used the element well, criticise them if they didn’t and acknowledge those works that used the element in question before. Maybe you’ll even find one that seems to have directly influenced the work you’re looking at. And maybe looking into that angle will lead you to more works that use the same kind of element and you can check those out as well.