Earlier this week Geoff Tebbetts took to Twitter to sing the praises of the newest Lupin III series added to Crunchyroll. He's got a friend in me there, and not just because I'm already a fan of that long-standing property about a cheeky sneak thief, his motley crew, and the hapless cops. It's because Geoff's praise for the series revolves around something I've gone to bat for in the past: Shows with adults as characters — even when they're not shows aimed at adults — are inherently more diverse than shows with teens as characters, especially when you're dealing with an anime industry hung up on catering to a self-selecting audience.
Let's start with Geoff's paeanage:
Caught Episode 5 of Lupin the 3rd (the 4th), and I'm still loving the pacing. Breakneck. It's as if every blank space in time is filled.— SMOOVE CRIMINAL (@GeoffTebbetts) January 15, 2016
Shows with adult characters really display a massive difference from those restrained to high-school settings. So much freedom to work with!— SMOOVE CRIMINAL (@GeoffTebbetts) January 15, 2016
(Seriously, I may never watch another show that has high-schoolers only. So much room to work with.)— SMOOVE CRIMINAL (@GeoffTebbetts) January 15, 2016
Back in 2014 I wrote a piece about how anime characters who weren't adolescents typically got short shrift, in big part because the industry producing this stuff has geared itself around a bunch of preconceived notions about what kinds of characters their audience wants. If your main characters are all adolescents or preadolescents, then you're limited to stories about the kinds of things adolescents deal with — not just logistically (school, graduation, bullying, parents) but emotionally (feeling small in a big world). It's not that these things are bad, but that they're only one possible flavor among many. Put other ages of characters in the mix, and you don't just get different characters. You get different kinds of stories.
Stories can feature adults, even if those stories are not aimed at adults. Nobody would ever mistake Lupin III for any kind of serious examination of law enforcement or the attraction of the antihero, etc. It's clearly for younger audiences, but not in a way that shuts older ones entirely out of the picture. It's also a great example of a show with adult characters that kids would be interested in, as opposed to yet another show about someone their age.
Someone else — I forget who now — once talked about how when he was a kid, he didn't want to see shows about other "cool kids", but about cool adults. I agreed then and I agree now; I know that when I was a kid, I didn't want to see shows about other kids. (Okay, the Dungeons & Dragons animated TV series managed to bend that rule, but only because of the name-brand.) I wanted stories about the kind of person I could hope to be one day, and the vast majority of the time that person wasn't a kid my age. When shows with adults protagonists featured kids, the kids were almost always annoying "audience identification" sidekick characters that I prayed would meet with a messy end.
I don't think that stories about young people are inherently a dead end. What matters is why it's about those characters. Wandering Son, and for all of its many flaws, Flowers of Evil, were about young people, but seen with the kind of cutting insight mainly only available to adults. They reminded me of the way movies like The 400 Blows looked at the lives of young people. Such stories were accessible to other young people, emotionally and intellectually, but an adult might end up responding most strongly to them because of what was seen and why. Among the Ghibli films, one of my very favorites is Whisper of the Heart, in big part because it sees its young characters with this kind of adult clarity and insight — and because it also features characters from adolescence, adulthood, and old age, all seen with the same sympathy.
But most anime about young people aren't really interested in them as young people, except through the prefabricated lens of how other anime have seen young people. They use such characters as shorthand, a way to say to their audience that this is "Anime", a product for a certain self-selecting and self-defined audience, as opposed to just "entertainment" or (more generally) "storytelling". Again, this doesn't make such shows bad on principle; a show can be entirely in that mold and still be very entertaining. But it's limiting, and sometimes it constrains things to the point where an idea that could have been great with a broader cast of characters becomes, well, less than great. The strategy the show uses to front-load its audience ends up doing no more than that, and while I know that's the idea, nothing says I must automatically excuse it.
Many anime with adults at the center aren't necessarily interested in "adult issues", either. But the exact issues faced are not so much the point; it's the range of reactions and behaviors available to the character that matters. Most shōnen shows revolve around a character who's young and spirited, if not terribly experienced or wise, because those are the established ground rules of the format for that demographic. Occasionally someone comes along who can invest all that with something like emotional truth (don't laugh, but the manga incarnation of Naruto did do this), but for the most part shows about kids are about respecting a formula, and the combination of formula plus young character imposes a lot of limits.
Not all stories about adults are automatically more interesting, either. An incurious story, one hemmed in by genre constraints or the narrowness of its creator's imagination, is going to be dull no matter who's in it or how old they are. It's also disingenuous to say even a bad (read: incurious) story about an adult is better than a good story about a kid, because a good story will be good no matter where it starts or who's in it. I will argue, though, that with anime today, a show with an adult cast is hidebound by fewer automatic constraints descending upon the material.
This is not only to say I want more seasons of Lupin III; we've already got an embarrassment of riches in that department. What I want is more shows that use an adult cast to tell a wider kind of story: more Ghost in the Shells, more Psycho-Passes, more Shikis, more Gin Tamas (yes, I jest not), more JoJo's Bizarre Adventures (I think most everyone warm and breathing would agree with me on that one), more Rurouni Kenshins, more Space Brothers, more Planetes, more Black Lagoons, more Tiger & Bunnys ...
... and, what the hell, more Lupin IIIs.