As you watch more and more Japanese anime, movies or TV shows, you’ll soon notice a few recurring themes. While genres may differ, there are many similar aspects shared amongst Japanese romance fiction, and some of these common tropes and plot devices have been used for decades. The Japanese romance genre is especially riddled with plenty of them. Let’s take a look at five commonly-used tropes in Japanese romance fiction.
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Tripes in Japanese romance fiction
The male lead runs off after a horrible fight with his long-term girlfriend. The two part on a cold, bustling night and the male is so lost in thought that he doesn’t pay attention to his surroundings. With his eyes downturn and his hands in his pockets, he wanders around while contemplating a future without his girlfriend. And then, he crosses the road.
We hear a loud blaring noise. The male lead looks up and his face is washed in bright, white lights, and his eyes widen. The screen turns black, and the screech of tires and the sound of impact tells you what you already knew was going to happen.
You’d think in 2020 we would know better to look both ways before crossing the street. But, no, this remains one of the most common tropes in romance shows in Japan, usually as a cliffhanger at the end of an episode or right before a commercial.
After miraculously avoiding death, the male protagonist is in the hospital, badly injured. Although he’ll recover physically with time, he can’t recognise the worried female visitor that claims to be his girlfriend. He has lost all memories of her, and the next few episodes will have the two of them falling back in love. The boyfriend doesn’t need his memories back as he’s made new ones with his lifelong partner who he’s come to appreciate all over again. Who can even remember why they were fighting in the first place?
Tragic, romantic, and satisfying. It’s an overused trope, but very effective at catching the heartstrings of the audience.
Memory loss is used in many other ways such as the ending of the recent film “Your Name” (2017). While the plot isn’t centered around amnesia, it’s a commonly used technique to have viewers empathize with characters as they want them to regain their memories.
Living with a Supernatural Being
A lover that’s just yours and that no one else can see. That’s the “living-with-a-ghost” trope in Japanese romance fiction.
As Shinto and Buddhist influences have been prevalent in Japanese culture, Japanese spirits are a popular topic and they often show up in Japanese romance fiction, and even in the romance genre. While the thought of being romantically involved with a ghost is no doubt terrifying for some people, the spirit, or yūrei in Japanese, is often harmless. A cold or withdrawn personality is as evil as they get.
The story usually starts with the main character moving into a new apartment where s/he begins to hear weird noises. They begin to wonder if they’re being watched or if they’re just being paranoid.
Eventually, the spirit will show itself, and thus begins the adventure of cohabiting with a supernatural being. As the main character interacts more with the spirit and learns about what they were like when they were alive, romance begins to blossom between the two of them. They are separated by their planes of reality and have no hope for a normal future together. A tragic love story.
While there are many different types of Japanese shows with these spirits, an anime called “Natsume’s Book of Friends” (2008) comes to mind as the plot is centered around a human boy who is the only one that can see these different creatures in his everyday life. He meets various characters and learns about the relationships between spirits and humans, whether that be good or bad. Coexistence with a supernatural being is a common trope due to its outlandish nature, and you can find it from old literature such as the legend of the yuki-onna in “Kwaidan” (1964) to modern day animations.
Teacher and student
As many Japanese people have an affinity for school uniforms, it’s no surprise that the forbidden “teacher-student” romance trope is a popular one. It’s usually targeted towards a younger audience that wants to be treated like an adult. What better way to feel grown-up than to be with a grown-up? While it would be scandalous in reality, the teacher-student relationship is touted with dream-like appeal and seductivity in movies and shows.
The teacher usually has a problematic student who they’ll need to give private tutoring lessons. In those lessons, the teacher will probably learn about the student’s tragic backstory, or vice versa, and they begin to fall in love. Next thing you know, the two of them are sneaking into classrooms for moments alone with one another, or making plans to have a date as far away from their school neighbourhood as possible.
There are other variations of this common trope where the teacher is a home tutor, usually a college student trying to earn extra credit or money to fund his own education. This lessens the age gap between the two lovers and may be more popular with those who are uncomfortable with middle-aged school teachers taking their underage students out on dates.
Though the trope is controversial, the two lovers usually have a happy or heartwarming ending, where the teachers waits patiently for the student to turn of legal age before they become an official couple.
An example of this is shown in the popular romance film “My Teacher” (2017), where it depicts two different couples, each in a teacher-student relationship. With the students desperately trying to have their male teachers fall for them, one couple is found out by the rest of the school. The teacher is then suspended, and they decide to stop seeing each other as a result of what happened. Years later, after the female student has graduated, the two are shown as a couple again. If you’re interested in finding out why this common trope is so popular, check out this film along with others here.
Touching upon another type of forbidden love, sibling love is a popular trope often used in Japanese romance. Usually one side of the couple will fawn over the other as they eventually reveal their romantic feelings for their brother or sister.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. That’s incest. You’re most certainly right, it is. And to many of us, incest would likely gross us out. However, in Japan, many people are single children who have never known what it’s like to grow up with someone, making it easier for them to fantasise about romance blossoming within sibling dynamics, while those of us who actually have siblings are simply grossed out.
Some of these works will question the morality of romantic love between siblings. Characters may question their relationships and may even ponder the consequences. Often, these discussions are pushed aside in order for the plot to move on.
A number of authors will “dodge the bullet” by having cousins or step-siblings fall in love instead of blood siblings. While it would technically still be considered incest, romances with someone not directly related to you or not even related to you by blood is a softer blow and may be easier to digest.
“The Tale Of Genji” is considered a masterpiece in Japanese literature and it too features aspects of incest. The main character himself, Genji has a romantic relationship with his step-mother Fujitsubo, as he obsesses over her similarities to his actual blood mother. It shows that these kinds of familial relationships have been written about throughout history, as can be seen within other forms of literature such as Greek mythology.
Reborn Into a New World
As Buddhism is one of the more prominent religions in Japan, reincarnation is a popularly-held belief.
The idea of having a past life and being reborn into a brand new one is a common trope you will see in many different Japanese shows. From being reincarnated as the opposite gender, or as a different race, or into a different world, it gives the author the flexibility to create any kind of setting.
A character having a past life and being reborn into a brand new one is a common trope. From being reincarnated as the opposite gender or different race, to being reincarnated into different worlds, there are dozens of scenarios that creators can put their characters into.
Oftentimes, the characters who are reborn used to be failures and now live a much more exciting life with more meaningful encounters. This trope is particularly noticeable in Japanese anime, in a genre known as ‘isekai (異世界)’ which translates to “different world” or “parallel world” where the protagonist is often reborn or transported to a new world to begin a second life.
This trend is popular due to the freedom it allows in storytelling as a brand new world is created. The setting can be anything from historical times, to a fantasy world. The types of characters in these are typically diverse as well, and can entertain all ages.
In the well-known anime “Sword Art Online” (2013), the main character is transported into a virtual world that becomes his new life. While he isn’t reborn, he finds that he is stuck, and unable to return to his previous reality. Taking online dating to a whole new level, he ends up getting married and raising a child within this virtual world. In between a whole lot of other events occur, and with multiple seasons, this show is bound to keep you busy for a while. If you haven’t already watched this popular anime, check it out on Netflix or Crunchyroll.
The origins of the tropes of Japanese fiction listed here can be found in Japanese culture, society and even spirituality. As times change, so will these aspects of Japan, and so will Japanese tropes and Japanese romance fiction. We will begin to see new and exciting changes in Japanese storytelling and I personally can’t wait!