I think it comes down to this. I would like to just lay out my overall thoughts on this topic rather than simply object to what seems like an useful term.
In a nutshell, slice of life is a metaphor, a tortured one, if you will. It describes the kind of pacing and descriptive narratives in which the plot revolves around the everyday life. It’s why I proposed replacing “life” with “everyday life.” It would make a much more accurate descriptor if we want to pin it on the narrative or plot as a point of distinction. It’s like splitting hairs versus splitting a watermelon.
The truth is, the everyday life can have as much narrative force as anything else. This is partly why we can make moving, lovingly crafted biographies. It’s pretty obvious that we watch and read stories where the chain of events follow the characters in the story in a day-to-day manner, and it might even follow traditional trajectories of plot where there are exciting build-up to climatic showdowns and revelations. This is one of the biggest grey area in calling slice of life as a genre or an element.
And then there is K-ON. K-ON is often used as a consensual example of slice of life, but that show is one of the best examples of what constitutes watching a chain of events unfold to drive home some story. Even if often the story is just cute and humorous antics that die to bring forth rich characters, week after week. And K-ON cashes in on that build-up very hard, with entire climatic moments that brings genuine tears in eyes! I don’t know, this is pretty rare even for kuuki-kei anime. I’d go as far as to argue that no “slice of life” anime has done that with the same scale.
There are other works that are labeled in the same way that has amazing stories, and that is why we flock to them. I think Hidamari Sketch and Aria are both prime examples of this, which I think occupies a very different spot even among kuuki-kei anime. To put it simply, there are kuuki-kei pieces that focuses on who, like K-ON, and kuuki-kei pieces that focuses on what and where, like Yokohama Shopping Log or Mushishi.
Compared to, say, a typical Jump manga story, it feels more like a focus on what happens next. I guess that’s where the narrative knife falls. But even then it’s not a clear cut; the more I think about it, the less clean and elegant the metaphoric rule about plot seems to be. Do I care if Takumi yawns in the morning and scratches his butt while talking to his father about racing teams? Where does the knife falls on the entirety of Sket Dance?
And there are other boundary conditions. Consider shows that are made up of short stories, such as Sengoku Collection or Seraphim Call, where each episode or episodic pair unveils some conclusive arc but reveals a little bit about the overall universe. How are these shows different than, say, Darker than Black or Cowboy Bebop, in terms of the nature of the narrative form?
That is the one question I wish people would try to answer, because I have no idea what that should be. I know some people who didn’t like Cowboy Bebop because it lacks that cliffhanger-chained, conveyor belt of a narrative, that there is not much to make of a start or an end, in terms of logical progression of events or in the way the story is told chronologically. But is this something we really want to define via a negative space descriptor? Isn’t it just being lazy? Or is it more about not having the right tools or vocabulary to describe these things? Can we just leave the tortured metaphor about cutting things up, alone?
Anyways, if people think the term has meaning, I’m not against people using it. But what does it mean, and to who? It certainly doesn’t mean much to me, having seen it being used to describe everything from Black Lagoon to Love-Hina, from Bunny Drop to Cosprayers (damn it’s gone from Wiki). Well, that doesn’t bother me much when this fandom still regularly calls Love-Hina as “shoujo.” I think what bothers me is more precisely how we use this fuzzy logic indicator [by the way: what is a chair?] and pretend it is some grand o’ thing. Slice of everyday life is no more or less grand than, well, Takumi scratching his butt. It’s the stories in Aria that are grand, for example, not its genre tags.
What is great is that in the ever-going and never-ending to apply our instinct to categorize the fandom we’re immersed in, we’re coming up with new constructs to describe and explain these new experiences and things. In anime’s case, it’s new also because for many of us, it’s our first and foremost taste of Japan [Insert LOL California roll LOL joke here]. Anime and manga are stories from a strange new world, beyond just as a figure of speech. But that’s just it. If I want to make things clear, I should avoid those terms like slice of life. You’d think my writing is confounding all on its own already, going by the way some people respond to it. Let’s not make up new words [LOL kuukikei] to make things more complicated, unless we have to. And if we don’t need to label Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts slice of life, we certainly don’t need to for Yotsuba& or Yokohama Shopping Log.
Lastly, let me just go back and give props to 2DT and his essay on Aria. The truth is when we rely only on fuzzy logic, we also invite fuzziness. Is that something we actually want? You are trading for usefulness and in return up new possibilities that might better describe the situation. That’s fine when we are treading familiar and established grounds, but is it in this case? I’d say no, resoundingly. The superior way is to just call it by what it is. And you do that only when you watch it closely.