Recently, I had the chance to watch the wonderful film Lady Bird, a movie following fictional Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she transitions from her last year in high school into her first steps into college and being an adult. It’s a beautiful film that balances and explores the natural humor and heartbreak that a lot of us go through during that same time in our lives. The film’s ability to convey the dynamics of Lady Bird’s family and their developing relationships with each other without every directly spelling it out feels so wonderfully natural and refreshing. It’s that sense of realism to it that I enjoyed, as I watched for all intents and purposes the Hollywood version of a slice of life anime.
There’s no evil villain in this story, no individual kids who bully our protagonist, no quest or soul-searching journey the character goes through, and not even an evil principal that forces almost illegal sentences on high school students a la Breakfast Club. Just a middle-lower class family trying to get by. They don’t always love each other but they try as we watch Lady Bird go through her last years in high school and her first few steps into adult life, struggling with her want to be special and unique while finding time and again that reality is a little harsher than that, and her dreams and ambitions are harder to obtain that just wishing for them. And in the end, they may have been what she wanted, but the naive singular pursuit of them left her missing what she needed. The film doesn’t end with our protagonist learning the error of her ways and dramatically changing everything. It just… ends. Because that’s how life is. Sometimes we only learn the lesson after the fact, and whether we learned or not, life keeps going regardless. We were only privy as an audience to just a slice of that life.
In that way, I loved this film. Slice of Life in anime is a genre I greatly enjoy. While some of my favorite stories are epic in scope, such as space operas or superheroes and villains blowing up airports, the ones that easily get me crying every time are the less dramatic in scope. The down-to-earth stories of people just being people and dealing with the issues that come from that struggle. Those are the ones that get my tear ducts going real fast and it’s for a good reason. We all can relate to a person trying to get by far better than a Norse god throwing down with a pink space dude. Those movies are great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s significantly less of a suspension of disbelief when you’re watching a young woman juggling several projects at work a la Shirobako than the pink dude with a single blinged out glove like he’s a space Michael Jackson. It’s much easier to empathize.
I chose not to put a spoiler tag because for one, I’m not planning on talking about the nitty-gritty details of this film but also, because there’s really not much to spoil with how a viewer might think the plot goes. That’s not to say that this is a cliche movie – it’s the opposite, in fact. Lady Bird is such an insanely accurate portrayal of real life that it ends up avoiding the cliches of Hollywood and instead portrays the real-life tropes we all know too well. We see the story where a break up isn’t the end of the world, though it feels that way for some time. The story of parents who don’t know how to raise their children the best, because they’re figuring it out at the same time their children are. The story of struggling with finances meaning that not everyone can get the same opportunities, and as much as we want a privileged life, that privilege is always being checked. It’s just the stories of normal, messy people who don’t have all the answers. The story of life.
Anime has been doing this for years now and continues to pump out amazing slice of life anime every single season. However, it’s a lot harder to find that genre when you’re looking at movies coming out. They’re there, but pure slice of life films aren’t nearly as celebrated or advertised all the time, at least from what I’ve seen. That is, until recently. Dramas have always been an easy one to point to for awards, with some of them even getting the term “Oscar-bait” attributed to them, a negative term attempting to signify they were made solely to try and win awards rather than tell stories (a term I have issues with). And while dramas typically come in a more real-world variety, pure slice of life movies are a lot harder to come by, with studios preferring to adding a little more to them, such as adding to the mix some romcom or melodrama, which there’s nothing wrong with. These stories can turn out to be some of the most powerful. However, I don’t think that’s always necessary.
I think Hollywood, and movies at large, can learn something from anime in this regard. While undoubtedly a pure slice of life film may not ever be able to rake in those sweet dollars a huge big budget action-adventure might, they have their place in film and can even be some of the most powerful films out there. So I think Hollywood should celebrate them more than they do now. Let’s not just put up on a pedestal achievements in drama, in special effects, or in comedy. Let’s gives props to those films where the characters are just living, personal stories about people and their normal experiences being people. These can be just as hard to write as other movies because it’s extremely difficult to write something that feels truly real while also hitting those emotional moments in our lives, whether they be funny or sad, without hyperbolizing. Anime has never shied away from this, and plenty of people love and celebrate slice of life anime to the point where there are so many dang ones out there, it’s a genuine whole pie rather than a slice. I love this. Yuru Camp was easily one of my top picks last season and as I’m sure many of you guys can attest to, I wasn’t alone in that line of thinking.
That’s why I love the injection of pure slice of life movies entering the circuit of award-winning film picks. On top of Lady Bird, there was also The Florida Project last year, which while I haven’t seen the entire thing, is beautiful in depicting the real issues of growing up in poverty without hyperbolizing how dark some moments can be. It balances itself incredibly well. Even outside of the US, there are films like Nobody Knows, one of my favorite Japanese films, that was a beautiful and heart-wrenching true story, but outside of the independent circuit, didn’t receive many awards despite it being one of the most emotional and well directed films I’ve ever seen.
Let’s change that. Let’s take our love of slice of life and bring it into other mediums. Let’s celebrate Lady Bird as a film, let’s celebrate Stardew Valley in all its pixelated slice of life game glory, and hell, let’s celebrate some great slice of life comics like Giant Days while we’re at it. It’s a great genre and it deserves for us to spread the love.