Anime and manga have plenty of diversity in terms of genre and setting, whether it be futuristic mecha, fantasy-like magical girls, romantic harems and boys’ love tales, stories set in the past or the future, from the workplace to outer space. However, there are some settings they keep coming back to.
Obviously schools are universally common settings because almost everyone goes to school in the modern developed world, but in anime one increasingly common trend is create schools that would never exist in real life. These “non-schools” as I like to call them are becoming increasingly common of late, so it is probably worth looking more into them and trying to understand their popularity. It is not just in anime of course where this is common. We British are home to the most famous fantasy educational establishment of all: Hogwarts.
For the purposes of the description, a non-school has to be something that is either totally impossible, or so improbable that the chances of such a place existing are practically zero. Thus, I have not included any schools that take place in anime set in the future, because we don’t know what will happen. All of these schools are set in the past, where we know they never existed, or the present day.
Also, while there are schools that are highly unlikely to be real, this does not mean that they are not implausible. For example, a school might have lots of money and resources, but it is more how these resources are used that make them less or more likely to exist, whether they are used by the teachers or pupils in certain clubs. I would not count Ouran High School Host Club a non-school for example, because very wealthy schools do exist, and a club where boys try to entertain girls does not seem entirely bonkers. Compared to some clubs at elite education establishments, the host club would be a lot better than some real-life ones. I would prefer Ouran High School Host Club to say Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club. After all, who would you find more attractive out of Tamaki Suoh and George Osborne?
Having looked into this, I would say that there are at least three broad categories that these non-schools fall into: the “super” schools, which features people who have certain powers either supernatural or superhero-like, the “policy” schools, which tend to be governed by strange rules, and a “miscellaneous” group that don’t fit into either category.
The “Super” Schools
This is probably the largest group. Most of these schools tend to have a supernatural bent to them. The Cross Academy in Vampire Knight which has an entire class for vampires who have their lessons at night is a prime example. However, other than the vampires, it is like a normal school in every other way, with the day-time students unaware that their night-time colleagues are the undead.
Other super schools tend to be ones where the entire school is focused on a supernatural activity, often training their students to defeat evil monsters who might attack the school. The Death Weapon Meister Academy in Soul Eater where students are taught to kill evil humans and witches is one example; another is the True Cross Academy in Blue Exorcist where students are trying to kill demons.
However, this is not just limited to the supernatural. Another recent addition, akin to Soul Eater and Blue Exorcist as places where kids are trained in an impossible field, is My Hero Academia and its U.A. High School, which is set in a world where 80% of the world’s population have superhero-like powers.
You could argue however that a possible sub-group of super schools is one in which the school itself is relatively normal, but there are a group of students who have some supernatural ability or superpower. You could classify the god-like Haruhi Suzumiya and the S.O.S. Brigade, the supernatural club that is home to Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches, the body-swapping members of the Student Cultural Research Club in Kokoro Connect, or the magical boys in Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! as being non-schools due to their presence.
The biggest of the super schools however would have to be the CLAMP School, which appears in several of titles by the all-women group of manga artists of the same name. For starters it is the size of a small city, housing students from kindergarten to university level. The fact that the school is shaped like a pentangle is a clear sign of its supernatural element. It is home to a detective agency (Clamp School Detectives), armed warrior-like superheroes (Duklyon: Clamp School Defenders) and a team of students investigating supernatural occurrences (Clamp School Paranormal Investigators). One of their younger students is even a gentleman burglar (Man of Many Faces).
The “Policy” Schools
In these schools there tends to be at least one policy that makes the school so odd that it would make it impossible to exist. Take the series Princess Princess, which is set in an all-boys school. Here it is decided to break-up the dullness of being in a school surrounded only by boys by getting three of the prettiest boys to dress up as girls and provide support at certain functions. Imagine trying to get three boys in a school to go around in drag. The tabloids would have a field-day.
Often the policies are set in order to make the school more elite. Hope’s Peak Academy in Danganronpa has only the “ultimate” students attending. Little do they know once they get in that the only way to graduate is to get away with murder. The students at Fumizuki Academy in Baka and Test also have to battle each other, this time using “Summoned Beasts”, where the students have to battle for resources in the ultimate example of educational screening. There are also very specialist schools, such as the Totsuki Saryo Culinary Institute in Food Wars! which not only has huge facilities and battles between students, but the course is so hard that only 10% of the students manage to graduate.
Mind you it is not always the teachers who are dishing out the policies, but student councils. At Honnouji Academy in Kill la Kill the student council adopt a fascistic policy towards school uniform, while the shadow student council at the formerly all-girl Hachimitsu Academy are willing to lock up all five of their male students in Prison School.
Sometimes however one odd policy does not strictly affect a whole school, but just one class. Kunugigaoka Junior High School, the setting for Assassination Classroom, sends its worse students to Class 3-E as an example to the rest of school, showing them that those at the bottom of the pile have no hope of a good future at all. Mind you, no-one has any hope at all if the class are unable by the end of the school year to kill their tentacle-monster teacher Koro Sensei, who is threatening to destroy the world.
The “Miscellaneous” Schools
There are a few schools which don’t fit into either of the other two categories. These are not schools that are odd because of some supernatural ability or the way they are run, but for different reasons entirely, some of them quite bizarre.
Nichijou might mean “my ordinary life” or “everyday”, but there is nothing ordinary about the unnamed school it is set in, due to the surreal situations the characters find themselves in. Whether it is the headmaster wrestling with deer, or students who are either gunning each other down or are clockwork robots, nothing is quite normal in this series.
Sometimes the schools are different due to the course of history. Alternative history therefore is a good setting for non-schools. Probably the most famous example is Girls und Panzer, where after WWII all the tanks were kept and used for sport. The series follows a school “tankery” team. The school and the town it is located in are all on the deck of an old aircraft carrier.
Another odd school would be Seishou Academy, the setting for Uttope!! In this school, the students are moe anthropomorphic personifications of firearms. Each firearm is being trained to become a useful weapon.
Why are they so popular?
Because school is an almost-universal experience just about anyone can relate to a series set in a school. However, while there are many series set in ordinary schools, or schools that seem a bit unlikely but not so outrageous as to make them ridiculous, I think people like these non-schools because they are a form of escapism.
Let’s face it, school is often horrible. It certainly was for some of the years of my life. Frequently you wish that you could go to a school that was just different, and whether that school was full of vampires, superheroes, murderers, robots, or a mixture of all them and then some more, would not matter in the least.
As a result young people read or watch these series thinking: “I wish I could go there”, while adults think: “I wish I went there.” This is a trend that will probably never stop. You can come up with all sorts of possible ideas for such schools and you’ll still have plenty of material to write about.
The problem however is that these series often end up having similar storylines because most schools follow the same pattern. You’ll end up with the story set during a school trip, or there is a cultural festival, or there will be some change in the students or staff that will bring chaos to the daily routine. Trying to come up with something that is totally original is hard to do, but it is worth it.