Animé vs. American TV

It’s funny how a meme crops up among several people at the same time, as I was recently reflecting on the same things that I’ve found Steven Den Beste and Pixy Mixa Shamus ruminating on: The differences between Japanese anime and American TV — and whether it’s possible to become as burned out on the former as we are on the latter.

Pixy makes much the same point that I had concluded long ago: the reason I like anime is that they tell stories. I was surprised to find that I never explicitly stated that before, when I was hunting for prior articles to link, but that’s the case. There’s a beginning and an end, and a journey in between, and because of that, they feel no need to put all the characters in the first episode; they just allow characters to enter the storyline naturally. This way, it is much easier to learn who they all are — Starship Operators didn’t follow that because its setting wouldn’t allow it–which is one of the reasons I dinged it; too many characters too fast and I coudln’t keep track of them all. That was a series that actually needed about three to five more episodes to introduce the characters and set the story up.

But storytelling is something that American TV just can’t seem to handle. They can’t make a series with an ending, it would mess up syndication! Night Court, one of my favorite TV shows ever, fell victim to that disease. Judge Stone never made a decision about Christine, and she never chose between him or the sleazy prosecutor, not even in the final episode. And the producer made no bones about it–that was because they didn’t want to alienate the fans they hoped would follow it into syndication.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t watched much American TV since the late 80’s. I think season four of Star Trek: TNG and season two of DS9 were about the last that I made it a point to watch; I drifted in and out of Babylon 5, despite the fact that I really liked it and found it to be better than Star Trek. Why? It had an overall plot; a story to tell. But I quit watching it religiously because I felt like Stracynzki was taking too long to tell it — there were too many of what I now know are called ‘filler episodes.’ (But I followed enough through season 4 to know the basic plot.)

Two of the animé series that I’ve reviewed over the last few months have meddled with the principle of telling a story: Those Who Hunt Elves just started with everyone already in place. The background/origin wasn’t explained for about six episodes, and it never was explained fully. Worse, they did exactly what Pixy complains about, only without the clifhanger:

I hate the way shows will end in a cliffhanger at the end of the season, so that they can entice viewers back after the network is done boring everyone with summer reruns. Even worse is when the viewer tunes in next fall to see how the story turned out, only to have everything go back to the same default state. So, the only time you need to care what happens between episodes is when the episodes are shown four months apart. That’s just rude.

In TWHE, they reset everything back to “normal” and even ignored several inconvenient plot points from the first season that would have forced a change.

At the end of the first season, when the spell has been reassembled, they had the whole cast go stupid in order to justify the second season. The first time the return home spell blew up, it was because Junpei accidentally distracted Celecia during spell-casting by talking about her being naked, and in less than complementary terms. It was really quite funny. “I mean, it’s not that I want to see her naked. Ha! You couldn’t pay me enough to look at that scrawny body!” The second time it’s because he was yelling at her, asking a question to which the answer should be obvious, but no one clobbered him and yelled “SHUT UP!” So the spell blew up a second time, putting them right back where they started–in short, the writers did a reset. A freaking reset. Lazy bastards.

It was a American-style series.

Then there’s Melancholy, which I posted on earlier. It also meddled with the formula; only they did it with malice aforethought and deliberate inventiveness. They wanted to mess with the viewer’s minds and did it by introducing them to a spectacularly bad student film, complete with a MST3K-like send-up, and then gave us a glimpse of the real people behind the film at the end. It set a hook that was reeled in slowly over the next two episodes… only to set a second hook by scrambling the order again. And it worked, because it was obvious that they were going somewhere; the fourth episode made it clear that there would be some changes–two characters we’d never seen before were in it!

TWHE’s lack of explanation to start felt like an accident or as if the writers weren’t sure what the background was (in fact, other than the barest of explanations, they never did go into their Earth history much). Melancholy knew where it was going–it even told you early on–but it drew people in by making them curious as to how they’d get there.

But as I watch more anime, I’ve been to recognize certain plots and themes that repeat themselves, and some are losing my attention–or turning me away.

For instance, Yumeria. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I had problems with its depiction of pre-teens as objects of desire for men. They tried to play it for laughs, but at times it approached total creepiness. Because of that, when SDB said he found a pedo character in Azumainga Daioh that ruined it for him, I crossed it off my list. Maybe it’s good, but I’d rather take my chances with an unknown than something I know I’ll have problems with. But now that I know most of the usual memes in anime, either it’s got to be really good, or really different. As SDB says:

What I’m running into now is mixed signals. A voice inside is saying, “I want something like Hand Maid May, or Noir, or Haibane Renmei. I want something that gives me the kind of enjoyment and delight that those series gave me.” But part of why those series gave me that kind of enjoyment and delight was that they were different from anything I’d seen before. In other words, what I want is something really new, the way those things were new — but aren’t any longer. I want something that’s like the way those things were unlike anything I’d seen before

And I’m hearing an echo of that. For instance, HMM was one of the series I’ve decided not to buy. Why? Because the plot is such a mess, SDB and J. Greely had to work out a background to make it all make sense, and because I’ve “been there and done that.” Android servant girl: Check, got part way through Chobits and didn’t like it. Maids? Hey, I watched Hanaukyo Maid Team LV, and that’s the ultimate maid series–it’s got hundreds of them. So HMM would have to be something really special and/or high quality — and from the messy plot/background, it doesn’t sound like it. If it was the first android girl or first maid series I saw, I’d probably have a fond place for it. But if it’s the second or third…. does it stack up? Would I be entertained or bored? I decided I’d go in a different direction and started Godannar instead.

Again, SDB hits it on the head:

I even have been sending mixed signals to myself. “OK, I liked Hand Maid May and part of the reason was because of the fan service. So let’s try some other fan-service harem comedies, and maybe the same magic will strike again.” Except it hasn’t, really. Partly it’s because the me-toos just aren’t as good, and partly it’s me. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I want something else now.

I think this is why Melancholy hit such a chord with not only me, but hundreds, if not thousands, of fans out there. It was incredibly different, and the way it was presented was different. It was a cheeky novelty, the way they deliberately scrambled the order of the episodes. If it were done on American TV, you could count on at least four imitators next season. And all four would suck, because they’d be copying the idea — which would no longer be novel. It would just be a copycat gimmick.

However, for various personal (er, financial) reasons, it looks like I’m going to be giving all anime except fansubs a rest for a few months. Hopefully that will allow me time to “recharge” and I’ll be able to come back to viewing lots of animé with a fresh attitude.

We’ll see.

Update: Sorry, Shamus! I was typing up this article very, very late and somehow got things scrambled. Pixy got substituted because of his comment on the thread:

I get the feeling every so often that I’m tired of anime. But what I’m tired of is bad (or even average) anime.

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