The year of 2010 was teeming with experimental approaches to jumpstart the medium, be it the attempts at original storylines, the omnibus format, or the use of unconventional execution. While such bursts of creativity have given us some memorable stories, most are remembered not for their ingenuity but for their spectacular failure to pull through. Perhaps the most egregious error of many a show was the inconsistency through its run. The lack of even simple tenets of consistent storytelling has severely crippled any gains these experiments may have achieved.
Narrative consistency, at its core, is simply how well parts of the story are connected together to make it believable. I like to break this into three specific aspects. The first is that rules set by the show itself should not be broken unless under extraordinary circumstances. Secondly, events that precede other events must be taken into account. Finally, characters need to go through logical characterization and development. These three things establish the audience’s suspension of disbelief, allowing us to believe certain situations in the story while rejecting others. This is why we are more willing to accept something outrageous if the show hints at such an outcome as possible.
The first of these, the foundation of the story, is often the most crucial. The nature of the story should often be taken at face value unless given considerable doubt. When we are told that everyone is dead in Angel Beats, we take for granted that they really are dead. If we see big mechas jumping around and moving as if they were ten times smaller, we ignore gravity for a few minutes to bathe in the chaotic battle. There are many things that are impossible in reality that we can easily accept in fiction, as long as they maintain that such things are as strict as the laws of the universe. The restriction, in this case, is that these rules should never be broken.
An example of how this can go awry is Star Driver, which holds none of its laws to be true except the obligation to end every episode with a fight scene. Even if the contradictions in the original premise are disregarded, one of the most obvious problems arises when Wako very explicitly states that no one has ever survived after using Samekh. Sugata’s resulting coma and recovery after using it completely breaks this rule, making us wonder why such a warning was even issued in the first place. It creates a jarring break in the story and makes the drama of four to five episodes of an already absurd series even more laughable.
Another part of the foundation laying aspect is the audience’s expectation of where the story will go. It is possible to run a complex story that concurrently runs multiple subplots, but we need to be prepared for that. The main plot usually should be introduced or hinted at early on, and plots should never be interrupted unless the subplot contributes meaningfully back to the main one. It is hard enough to juggle one plot at times; two can be suicidal.
Angel Beats betrayed many expectations not because it didn’t have plots but that it didn’t know which plot was important. On one hand, it wanted to play up the unknown nature of the world explicitly through confrontations between people and battles with the system. On the other, it wanted to be emotionally manipulative by making it some kind of purgatory. In between it tried to cram in a public service announcement. This lack of direction resulted in all three plots constantly vying for attention, interrupting each other at inopportune times.
The restrictions of the second aspect, the sequence of events, are far stricter than that of the first. While the rules of the story can be as crazy as one’s imagination as long as they don’t conflict each other, events have a consistent progression. They are bounded by the human expectation that life, and as a result the lives of the characters, is cumulative. All too often a story is seen as a bunch of individual scenes that are strung together in the least confusing fashion. This creates situations where a major event that should clearly affect the rest of the story fails to have any effect at all.
One of the worst offender in recent memory is Ore no Imouto, which gave us three events that should have been turning points: episode three, five, and eight. Episode three opens us up to the idea that Kirino can sooner or later come to accept herself regardless of the opinion of others. Episode five presses the opposite: that other should come to accept her for who she is. Episode eight heaps upon Kirino the obligations of a published book, which should be a monumental achievement. Instead, the story veers back to the status quo, resulting in no dramatic event having any impact on the characters.
When these problems are stacked with mistakes in characterization, stories begin to fall apart. As creatures who greatly empathize and attach themselves to similar beings, humans place great value in the consistent nature of fictional characters. Nothing is more obviously wrong and out of character than a stoic character suddenly bouncing around and dragging the protagonists all over the place. At times, this means that the creators of the series need to give more attention to their characters, as while minor plot holes and story problems can sometimes be handwaved away, even small character problems can either snowball into polarizing opinions or absurd representations.
There are many instances of this that can be brought up, but obvious examples can be seen in the final episodes of Angel Beats and Ore no Imouto. Characters that have been acting one way for eleven to twelve straight episodes suddenly change their attitude with nary a piece of development. No characterization is given as to why they’ve suddenly changed their tune, save perhaps the obvious meta excuse. Even more puzzling is Sugata’s change in character in Star Driver for exactly one episode before reverting back to his old self. Such situations cheapen any kind of logical character development, which defeats the purpose of drama.
Although I’ve only brought up three examples, this inability to adhere to the basics of storytelling is pervasive. Too many shows last year tried too hard to cater to specific storytelling approaches that were nonsensical but common, or else they attempted to experiment with the format without getting even the fundamentals right. It is perhaps ironic that in contrast to 2010, 2009 gave us Cross Game and Kemono no Souja Erin, two shows that proved that the tried and true formula of basic storytelling was still one of the most solid ways to tell a story. I’m all for experimentation in anime, but it’s an uphill battle if no one can create good stories in the first place.
1. There are spoilers for the tagged anime, although I frankly believe I saved the four or five of you who haven’t watched all three shows from banging your head on the wall too many times when you get around to watching them.
2. There are, of course, hazy exceptions that stretch the rules I’ve established here. Unreliable narratives present doubt in the setting. Episodic series are usually tangentially related and don’t develop each other. Good plot twists are usually unpredictable. I still stand by the fact that any good series follows these rules in some shape or form. No matter how unreliable someone is, we don’t expect a simple slice-of-life series to become an action packed mecha one. Good episodic series either tie their episodes thematically or do in fact subtly develop their characters, and good plot twists are usually logical on a second watch. Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei is probably the best 2010 example of a show that pushed boundaries while still maintaining solid storytelling. Yes, you can stretch the rules, but we need people to adhere to the rules first before bending them.