The power of context in creating epidemics has often been the focus of social dynamic studies. This is hardly a new concept. Comedies are almost always funnier with friends; thrillers more enjoyable in groups. Similarly, the contexts in which we watch anime are bound to affect our experience. I love Aria not only because it is amazing, but also because it came at a right time. Furthermore, the power of context goes beyond the personal experience to affect collective opinions.
Recently, I finished The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell presents a compelling case study to illustrate this idea: the epidemic of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Within two years of its release, Ya-Ya Sisterhood sold 2.5 million copies, became a bestseller, generated multiple articles in magazines, and propelled Rebecca Wells to celebrity status. Its first epidemic momentum coincided with Well’s book reading tour in Northern California. The Bay Area has one of most vibrant reading group cultures in the US, and Ya-Ya Sisterhood is, in the words of publishers, a “book-group book.” Gladwell claims that what tipped this book into a social epidemic is the context in which many readers read it. In a group, readers tend to enjoy the experience more. Furthermore, collective opinions propagate easier and quicker from group to group, which makes a particular idea spread exponentially.*
It might be interesting to take that concept and apply it to certain anime. Of the myriad of slice-of-life anime released each year, only a few reach epidemic success. Compare K-On! to Hyakko. Both are anime adaptations of a decent manga. Both feature four to five high school girls with distinct likable personalities, a strong supporting cast, and a fun relaxing episodic story. Yet only K-On! has a large following and a strong presence in almost every facet of anime. It is not necessarily because K-On! is better. In fact, when I first read both manga, I actually found K-On! manga to be rather bland. K-On! anime’s later popularity certainly took me by surprise.
Perhaps K-On!’s success hinges on its accessibility to the group experience. Like Ya-Ya Sisterhood, K-On! is a character-driven, emotionally sophisticated, and highly relatable story, the kind of story that can generate casual talk among friends, in forums, and on image boards. Furthermore, the distinctive looks and various outfits of the band are easily picked up by various fan art and cosplay communities, as well as figure collectors. These different outfits and band accessories are a seemingly inconsequential gimmick, but may be just the thing that Hyakko, Gokujou Seitokai, Minami-Kei, and others lack. This accessibility compels watchers to be part of a community, and prompts K-On! to become a social experience. The social experience, in turn, influences the collective opinion, which then shapes our personal attitudes toward K-On!
A parallel can be seen with Black Rock Shooter. A visually driven short OVA, Black Rock Shooter quickly gained widespread popularity soon after its release. In contrast, the similar Cencoroll also stuns viewers with its stylistic animation and conceptual designs. Yet, although both are short, beautiful, loosely “indie” works, Cencoroll remains in relative obscurity. The key difference is perhaps in Black Rock Shooter’s origins in Pixiv. As Huke becomes a hero to many aspiring independent artists, the designs and the anime are also quickly adopted by the Pixiv community. In fact, BRS is featured on the front page and the first article of the first volume of Quarterly Pixiv. With Supercell’s music and memorable character designs, Black Rock Shooter fits easily into the conversation of a wide variety of influential communities (Pixiv, anime music, figures, cosplay…etc.). Just as K-On! has, Black Rock Shooter became a social experience and a social epidemic.
Of course, this is a frivolous conclusion based on hypothetical associations.** Context is just one part of the numerous influences that make K-On! and Black Rock Shooter huge hits. Still, recognizing how collective opinions can influence our own may be a nice exercise. This is especially valuable when re-watching a particular series. It may also be relevant to see how our opinions change over the course of a long anime. I might have loved K-On!! and Black Rock Shooter even more after I dabbled in blogs, figures, artbooks, magazines, and various communities surrounding these anime.
*”Power of Context” and the Ya Ya Sisterhood example taken from The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
**Association/ causation, anecdotal evidence, weak conclusions, incomplete research, and over generalization are only some of the problems.