Type: Premise and situational cliché
What made it popular: Another cliché that has became popular simply because of the amount of conveniences it gives to the creators. No concrete originator.
Cliché Level: High
Where can you find it: To Love Ru, Fate/Stay Night, Myself Yourself, Charlotte, Noucome, Hyouka, Binbougami Ga!, Bakemonogatari, Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai, Date a Live, etc. Commonly used cliché in slice of life, romance and harem anime.
If you have been watching anime for a long time, particularly anime in the slice of life and harem genres, then you may have noticed how despite the protagonist usually being a teenager, he lives in a large family house, all by himself (or with his sister) without any mention or sight of the parents. This is an obviously odd scenario, as most parents wouldn’t allow their kid to live in a family house by himself without any supervision.
But fortunately for our protagonist in such anime, the parents might as well not exist, as they never appear in the story or take any role in it, so to the story of the anime they are dead and of no importance.
So any anime where the parents do not appear or are absent from the story belong to this cliché. This mainly refers in relation to parents of the protagonist as he is the one we are following as the viewer most of time, but it can also occasionally refer to the side characters in scenarios where their parents should logically be present or do something yet they are nowhere to be seen.
Obviously this cliché only refers to settings that are either set in our modern era, or based off on our modern era. Parents being absent in lets say a medieval setting isn’t out of place at all, as they could have easily died to the high mortality rate, leaving their child alone. But this obviously is not the case in the modern world where mortality rate is the lowest in history and people live up to their 70’s or 80’s on average.
Because of the above, justifying the lack of parental presence is hard. (Well its hard in the more advanced societies like Japan. I guess you could have an anime set in Africa and say that the parents died of Malaria, wild gorillas or anything, but really everyone knows that 90% of anime are either set in Japan or in some fictional world, so its irrelevant to take it into consideration when measuring clichés.) But many anime don’t even care to justify the usage of this cliché.
Why its bad:
First off, lets examine the question: Why would writers purposefully exclude the parents? And what would they gain by doing this?
There are two answers to that question:
First is that some writers believe that if a teenager lives by himself, then it will cause him to have a more independent and mature character compared to regular teenagers who live with their parents/relatives. Basically this is a shitty attempt to make a character more interesting or cool by the usage of the basic situation alone.
It is a shitty attempt because it never succeeds. And it doesn’t succeed because the setting alone is not enough to define a character, so if the character is an 1-dimensional nobody for example then this didn’t achieve anything good, but it made the protagonist “special” by making him live by himself in a setting where most other teenagers don’t. And characters that are special within their own setting are always faulty due to the “protagonist syndrome”.
(Protagonist Syndrome: When writers try to make you care about the main character by giving him particular back-stories or define him in the setting in a way that would potentially make you relate to him. But usually because of the writer’s incompetence, these things that were made so you would like the protagonist, achieve the opposite of the desired result. This mainly happens because it caused them to feel “too special” in the given setting or in comparison to the other characters. Or because it made the protagonist feel cliché.)
While it is true in real life that a teenager being left to his own devices can build him some character. In anime this does not apply due to the reason that the average anime protagonist of today is your typical independent and self supportive teenager, so instead of building them character it turns them into just another cliché by following the established trends in the medium. The uniqueness and originality of a character is always compared to the average, and in this case, teenage independent/loner protagonist are the average.
Being overused to the point of staleness isn’t the worst part of this cliché though, but the amount of conveniences it gives to the author. Just think about how harder it would be for any harem/ecchi/fanservice shenanigans to occur if the protagonist parents were at home to cockblock him. Harem anime like To Love-Ru allow the events and characters to run wild by taking out the parents and making the protagonist live by themselves (in this case with his sister who is also part of his harem).
But removing the parents isn’t convenient for the harem and ecchi genres only, its also convenient for various action themed shows that are set in a modern era. Like the typical battle-shounens (Katekyo Hitman Reborn and History Strongest Disciple Kenichi for example) where various teenage characters go out to fight and endanger their lives by fighting other characters on a daily/nightly basis, yet the parents are once more nowhere to be seen.
If the parents were present in those anime they would obviously try to stop their kids from putting themselves into danger, so removing them essentially means that the fight fest can continue on without any interruption or complication whatsoever. It is typical of battle shounens that the story and the settings only exits to give an excuse for the characters to fight each other.
A large number of anime would end way earlier if the parents were present, this has to do with the fact that in many anime the teenage characters have no one to depend on but themselves to solve whatever problems or hardships they might be facing, which might be difficult to solve with the strength and capabilities of a teenager alone. But if you were to add in a parent character who has the capabilities and resources of an adult and can help our teenage characters out, the problems would be solved much easier.
(Well even when the parents are actually present the characters frequently refuse to seek their help for illogical reasons.)
Drama involving teenagers would be vastly simplified and shortened if the parents were allowed to step in as they generally involve petty stuff like bullying. So it is convenient for highschool dramas to not to have the parents present all the same.
Of course if the parents are not present at all, then the show should provide some kind of logical explanation for it, a justification for the absence of parents if you will. Many anime that make use of the absent parent cliché, actually do try to justify its usage, but most of the time they are just terrible excuses.
This is how we get to the parents that constantly travel the globe because of their work, single parents who constantly work overtime and never return home, not even to sleep, or straight out dead parents. But as I said, all of these are really just excuses that are meant to mask the laziness and how they sacrificed something for the sake of convenience. Still it is better than not receiving an explanation at all, which is the worse case with anime involving this cliché.
Hilariously as a result of this cliché, when parents do actually appear in an anime and do actually take part in the story, then they will feel all the more significant and noticeable. Since its usual for an anime to include the parents, its all the more easy for the few parental characters that do actually make into an anime to stand out. As it was shown by Parasyte recently.
To conclude: As usual writers erase a potential obstacle (the parents) to their stories, instead of working around it. And unfortunately for them erasing is not always the best or the most entertaining alternative. Imagine for example how much more exciting your harem anime would be if the characters had to try and seduce the protagonist while their parents were at home instead of just letting them run wild like usual. That way at least there would be some kind of tension of the “what if they find out or notice” kind. And that was just one of the many examples that I could provide on how the presence of parents could potentially make an anime better.