(Note: Steven’s comment about giving away endings isn’t fully correct. Major spoilers are blacked out, but he forgot he has local rules in place to override my font settings. I’ve found a spoiler tag plug-in for WP and will install that sometime soon to solve this problem. Sigh.)
Friday, I engaged in a discussion of Japanese vs. American shows, which got sidetracked into dealing with the relationship between Lodoss and Loius the Rune Soldier. (And boy was I surprised to find out they were set in the same world!)
My theory is that Lodoss and Louis represent an exercise in “the grass is greener.” AnimÃ© may have its clichÃ©s and tropes, but we haven’t spent years and years getting sick of them all like we have with American TV/Cinema. It’s different, and that helps make it seem fresh. So when the Japanese look for something that’s different to them, and start looking to our cultural tropes, it’s simultaneously fresh to them and old to us.
Re-railing the original thread/thought process and taking it a bit further: Even at it’s best (the original Shrek and Toy Story movies), the watered-down stories American film-making (and moreso, TV) tell are just recycled from show to show. It’s rare that we see the characters really challenged and forced to grow, because that means changing the “formula” and if there’s one thing American TV/movie studios are wedded to, its formula. Most American audiences seem to like not being challenged by their movies — they want to be able to peg it for what it is within the first few minutes, and then sit back to enjoy the ride. Anything that might challenge the characters and therefore the viewer’s early assumption, makes them uncomfortable. So what we end up with is a bunch of bland, formula-driven shows with elements patched together from nearly 100 years of film-making history. This is especially true when one gets to the genres of science-fiction or fantasy; it’s like the scriptwriters have used up every shred of imagination by moving the story out of the contemporary times and all that’s left is to drag out the worst dialogue, plotting, and acting imaginable. (Sometimes, we get lucky, like Princess Bride, but it’s rare.)
How common is that reuse of elements? Well, years ago, I played a pocket game (I wish I could remember the name) in which a spaceship crew had to land on an asteroid to stop the mad scientist from sending it on a collision course with Earth. They weren’t military; just an ordinary crew that happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Every one of the characters was a stereotype, and the victory conditions were humorously satirical:
SPCA Victory: The pet dog survives.
Romantic Victory: the Handsome Pilot and Beautiful Love Interest survive.
Nerd Victory: the geeky engineer survives. (etc., etc.)
As Roger Ebert once said*, speaking of Blazing Saddles and Hollywood westerns: “If an entire genrÃ© can be satirized in a single movie, stick a fork in it, it’s dead.” (*to the best of my faulty recollection.) I don’t know if that applies to satire by games, but since the original Scary Movie didn’t kill horror movies, I guess he was wrong about that.
I find Japanese animation is a lot more willing to challenge its characters on fundamental levels and make risky changes to them. In doing so, it’s more likely to challenge the viewer and make him or her feel a bit more, and that’s one of the things that I like. I don’t necessarily want to be challenged every time I sit down, but I generally do not want to know exactly how every piece of the plot and 2/3′s of the gags are going to work out. That way lies boredom. (While we’re at it, could someone explain to me why blows to the crotch are so funny that they have to appear in almost every comedy Hollywood makes? Is it all part of the insidious plot to emasculate the American male?) That’s not to say that animÃ© doesn’t have it’s own formulas, tropes, and recycled elements; dreck is dreck and the Japanese are just as willing to produce that too. But it also seems to produce a surprising amount of “three-star” material (or in my system, grade “B” although that has negative connotations from American cinema). Such series shouldn’t be any good, based on their premise, but turn out to have deeper elements that engage the viewer and raise the overall quality–even if there are huge problems elsewhere in the show. Examples:
Hanukyo Maid Team La Verite: Looks like a dumb fanservice vehicle, but the last 3rd is drama based around Mariel’s origin.
Martian Successor Nadesico: Starts like a silly mecha/comedy series, surprisingly dramatic and serious war story at times.
Vandread: Much like MSN, above. Most unusual harem.
DearS: Seems like a terribly clichÃ©d fanservice show, but changes the main characters undergo make it better than it should be.
Najica Blitz Tactics: Pantsu, pantsu, pantsu! With a story about what it is to be human, and the bond between two, er, beings.
In fact, as I look back across the animÃ© that I’ve acquired, a few common elements among my favorite shows start to become apparent. There are certain things that I like, which appear in my favorite shows, or the ones that I maintain “are better than they seem at first.”
(Edit: Warning, spoilers ahead: the worst is blacked out but exercise caution. Don’t uncover the blackout unless you want the ending to some good series spoiled.)
- Main Character Growth: The protagonist(s) is(are) personally challenged on some level. He or she is forced to confront something that changes their personality or outlook on life. Najica (Najica Blitz Tactics) sees Lila as a simple (and intrusive) robot to start, but as Lila develops, Najica changes in response. Lafiel (Crest/Banner of the Stars) learns how to have a real friend and to trust Jinto. Shana (Shakugan no Shana) learns that her own desires are important too. In the end, the character has to be able to make a decision and act on it: Shana loses points here, Shingji (NGE) is a total loss, whereas Akito (MSN) and Hibiki (Vandred) win.
- Unpredictable: The story isn’t so worn out from re-telling that every move is predictable. I cannot tell at the start where the show is going, or if I can, I turn out to be wrong–in a good way. The change in tone/subject must be consistent and believable, and not involve elements just plucked out of the air. Or if it is, that’s the point (Excel Saga, I’m lookin’ at you, kid. See “Defies the Tropes” below.) Romeo x Juliet got points for changing up the balance of power between the Montescues and Capulets, plus adding Zorro-like elements to it. Most of the show can be predictable, but if the ending is both unexpected and consistent, it’s generally enough for me to raise the score a letter.
- Sympathetic Major Characters: They need to be characters that I, as the audience, can see myself in the place of, or at least understand the place they’re in. If their thought processes are too different (for instance, they rape babies and eat pretty women for breakfast), I’m not going to have any interest in watching their story. They can have their flaws–they can even be evil, if I can understand what drove them to be that way — but there are three major sins:
- Stupidity. Romeo (Romeo x Juliet), Wataru (Sister Princess) or Maya (Daphne).
- Endless angst. Karin, Anjou, Maki, and Usui (Karin), everyone (Neon Genesis).
- Being rat bastards (or letting the rat bastard win). Shinji, (end of NGE)
- Good OP/ED: Certainly not enough to carry a show indefinitely, but good music can draw me for quite a while. I like ballads somewhat, J-Pop depends on whether it’s any good or not (Horie Yui as a singer and music by Yoko Kanno are favorites). I am an absolute sucker for anything in a minor key, and bagpipes will always catch my attention. Examples of music that draw me even after I realized the shows were disappointing or dreck: the OP to Sister Princess, the ED to Maburaho, and both the OP and ED to Simoun. Example of good ED with a good show: ED of Misaki Chronicles. I don’t even have to read the subbed lyrics and the tone grabs me by the throat. (Or maybe it’s Misaki’s bouncing tits. Good god, how does she avoid black eyes?)
- Humor: If the show delves into humor, the jokes should be intelligent, not worn-out gags. Poking fun at the audience’s expectations by confounding them is usually good. “Situational” humor involving someone making an embarrassing fool out of themselves is beyond bad. Self-referential humor (such as the absurdly long episode titles in HIMM or occasional fourth-wall breaks) is something I like. My sense of humor is somewhat skewed compared to that of a “normal” person, though I suspect it’s not unusual at all among animÃ© fans/gamers/geeks. So this one’s unpredictable.
- Defies the tropes: A good show can manage a to play with user expectations and then defy them. In Code Geass, the viewer expects Lelouche to find a super-mech in the first episode–instead he finds a strange girl–and the only “friendly” mech is badly outclassed. Excel Saga; well anyone who “knew” what was coming next in that show was kidding themselves.
- Fanservice: It isn’t necessary, and it can be overdone. But (just in case there was anyone unclear on the subject) I’m definitely het, and I find animation of attractive, scantily-clad females much easier to look at than androgynous bishie-boys. On the other hand, there’s two things that can make it a negative, and that’s making the pandering too obviously ridiculous and stupid (Amaenaideyo) or treating pre-teens as sexual objects (Yumeria and sometimes He Is My Master.)
- Art and animation quality: No surprises there; if it’s original or well done, of course it’s going to get a high score. Examples are Bakumatsu (sometimes), Kanon,
- Defying the rules: Then there’s the rare show that can come along, break the above rules, and still manage to make me like it. Prime examples: M.D. Geist (rat bastard wins); Shakugan no Shana (angst), He Is My Master (sometimes – pre-teen sex objects*), Code Geass (random plot elements plucked out of thin air). (*you know, that’s going to take some ‘splaining….)
- Tight plotting The writers have enough story to tell to fill the series, and not so much less that there are lots of fillers, or so much more that everything is rushed. There are no major gaps in logic, and the backstory is consistent with the plot developments and vice-versa.
Shows that frustrate the main characters’ growth get negative scores (Stratos 4, season 2).
Sometimes, a show can pick one category over another, and it works. Other times, it doesn’t. The ending of Scrapped Princess is simultaneously unexpected, consistent, and hugely disappointing. Pacifica remains a total airhead to the end, with no growth at all. Mauser, after sacrificing everything and imprisoning the human race for 5,000 years, throws the final battle, despite having no reason to do so. Najica Blitz Tactics, on the other hand, does work when Najica decides to “throw” the mission, and give Lila her freedom, even to the point of forcing Lila to shoot her in order to break her programming/conditioning and assert her independence. We’ve seen that moment coming, so that it’s consistent–but we don’t know how it is going to play out, so it’s unpredictable. Then there’s shows like Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Slyly humorous, over 50% filler, top-notch OP/ED that became a YouTube sensation….
Liking or disliking a show is not just a matter of what’s present. It’s also a matter of what’s absent. Some things just don’t need to be there:
- Excessive brutality: This is situational. A war story is going to be brutal, if it’s done right. Other stories don’t have to be. Note that by brutality, I don’t necessarily mean violence and blood; I mean wallowing in the negative and destructive elements of the human psyche. Prime examples are Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Breaking the rules: a show that did this successfully (YMMV) was Cowboy Bebop. The show was often violent, the ending was harsh, but it was all consistent. The buildup of the series was such that you knew Spike and Julia weren’t going to walk away and live happily ever after; to have told the story that way, or even to have Spike survive the end would have been cheapening it. I hated to see Spike die, yet when it happened, I felt it was the right ending.
- Stupid major characters: Nuku Nuku Dash, I’m lookin’ at you. I’ve already mentioned stupidity as being a mistake. Major characters can be “stupid” if it’s not their fault (most of the pilots in Simoun, who weren’t prepared for war, thanks to their dysfunctional culture), or if they have other characteristics that mitigate their stupidity (Parn’s bravery in Record of Lodoss War), or if they change (Bart in Vandread). If a character makes you want to slap them so hard that their heads do a 360, then they’re failures (everyone in Karin). Angst is a sub-category of stupidity, because angst occurs when a character can’t make up their mind what they want or are unable to bring themselves to act on their desires. Angst signifies weakness, and weak characters rarely can carry a story. Angst is not the same as guilt; a character haunted by the necessity of taking actions he or she considers evil may be tortured by the memory of that action, but it’s not angst, per se. Caveat: on the flip side, guilt over inaction or failure might be. For instance, if Gene Starwind’s guilt over his failure to save Hilda in Outlaw Star had paralyzed him, it would have been a mistake. It didn’t and so it wasn’t.
- No Character Growth: Dokuro-chan, Girls High, Nuku Nuku Dash, Those Who Hunt Elves, Maburaho, Mars Daybreak, Otome wa Boku, Code Geass, NGE…. the list is really too long.
- Thin, unbelievable or missing backstory: Sister Princess, Godannar, Mars Daybreak, Otome wa Boku, Daphne, Yumeria… another overlong list.
Another example of getting it right for a while, but then going wrong: Full Metal Panic.
Because of the importance of mixing and matching those elements, I don’t think it’s possible to create “Ubu’s perfect series” merely by assembling the good parts, and leaving out the bad. Too many times, I’ve run across a series that had elements that put my back up, yet I liked the series in the end. Take DearS and He Is My Master. Both are fanservice vehicles. Both involve, at their core, treating women as property. Both have things that make me wince at times. In the end, I liked both — though He Is My Master barely makes the grade of C, due to too many negative elements. (I may do a review of HIMM next and explain why–a lot of this article is me trying to understand it myself!)
Then there’s Code Geass: Random plot elements and no character growth should consign it to the trash heap. But this isn’t a story about character growth through meeting challenges, it’s about Lelouche’s damnation as he pursues his goal at any cost. It’s a Greek tragedy: will Lelouche’s hubris destroy him, or everyone around him, or both? That’s what Code Geass is really about — and in turn that makes me wonder about my preconceptions. It seems, now that I look back, that I naturally assumed that a “good story” was one built on overcoming adversity. Certainly, it’s a classic plot — but it’s not the only one. After all, Shakespeare also wrote tragedy and farce long before animÃ© existed. Then there’s mindless adventure/escapism (Mars Daybreak, Godannar). The latter type of story might be thought of as “overcoming fast-paced adversity without character development.” I rarely give high marks to that kind of show, although I may find it entertaining to watch for a while.
Ultimately, all I’ve managed to do is confuse myself even more. I can see certain trends, likes, and dislikes, but I can’t seem to quantify them. I can weight them — for instance, fanservice is less important than storytelling skill — but I can’t calibrate them. How much more important is storytelling? Why do I not like Amaenaideyo, but I do (barely) like He Is My Master? No matter what rules I devise, I become lost in the exceptions. Maybe I need to enforce a “no pedantic nitpicking” rule on myself! Or better yet, just settle for developing a series of heuristics. The problem with that is it’s for evaluating new series to buy, not for determining why I like (or don’t like) one I’ve already obtained. But if I don’t know why I like what I have, how will I know what to buy? Arrrrrgh!
In the end, I don’t think that this examination of animÃ© was as useful as my original one. At least with that system, I could analyze and quantify. This isn’t a system, it’s just a listing of elements.
(shakes head, wanders off stage….)
Update: Well, speaking of fanservice, that settles that! Code Geass has definitely gone on my must-buy list when it’s imported!