No End in Sight

Perhaps this would have been more preferable? Also, what the hell does "Clara! Tequila." even mean?!

Most of us are disappointed with the way Kuragehime ended. While it more than proved itself to be a quaint, charming little series, the ending was an absolute trainwreck. This got me to thinking… how does one end an anime well? (Spoilers for the tagged series, major spoilers for Kuragehime.)

Let’s take Kuragehime as an example of what not to do in a last episode. The show is perfect for analysis, because Kuragehime is a complex series with a few major conflicts running concurrently, none of which are closed to being resolved by the end of the penultimate episode. Most prominently, the protagonists are attempting to stop the Amamizukan’s re-development. In addition, there seemed to be a love triangle between Shuu, Kuranosuke and Tsukimi, further complicated by the fact that Kuranosuke doesn’t really know how he feels about Tsukimi. And what about Kuranosuke’s search for his mother? Did that become a moot point?

The two or three conflicts mentioned above seem like quite the handful to deal with. However, Brain’s Base demonstrated exactly what not to do in this case: disregard the last 10 episodes’ worth of plot, and go for a heartful ending which attempts to appeal to the audience’s sense of sentimentality. This sort of approach simply doesn’t work, and doesn’t fool anyone. It ends up being worse than any sort of other ending because it lacks conviction, and seems unconvincing.

Naturally, Kuragehime isn’t the first show to waver and vacillate during the last episode. Notoriously, Macross F‘s ending was horribly lacking in conviction, probably out of a desire to placate both Sheryl and Ranka fans. Other endings are anti-climatic or inconclusive (look, for example, at MoyashimonKure-nai and Sora no Woto). The series that I’ve named are all generally better than average, which shows that even good series can fall into the trap of having a conformist, unsatisfying ending. Why is this?

For one, as in Macross F‘s case, there is a desire to “not disappoint the fans.” Having Alto, the protagonist of Macross F, choose one heroine over the other would surely alienate one group of fans. The directors (and probably the producers) fear that such alienation would lead to a shrinking of the show’s fanbase (or, more cynically, a decrease in DVD sales revenue), so the creative staff of the show decided to keep things deliberately vague so as to not offend anyone. The irony here is, of course, that they run the risk of offending everyone by half-assing the finale of the show. (They certainly offended me; I would have liked a more conclusive ending, and one that didn’t reek of populist pandering.) In this manner, “placating the fans” becomes the worst excuse a studio can have for writing inconclusive endings.

But back to Kuragehime. Its ending does not represent an attempt to pander to fans— the show simply ran out of time. Brain’s Base didn’t pace the show well enough, and introduced too many characters, too many concepts and too many conflicts to be resolved in eleven episodes. Many shows do this— especially shows which are adaptations of long-running manga (especially ones which haven’t finished their run at time of broadcast.) This is a practical constraint, and one which is surprisingly hard to get around. Naturally, studios could simply chose to not make shows based off of manga which are still printing— but to do so would be financial suicide. It’s imperative for a studio to cash in on a specific series’ success right at the height of its popularity. Another (more practical) solution would simply be to animate one arc of a manga series, or one volume of a light novel, but this sort of approach works much better for OAVs. (For an excellent example of this, refer to Denpa Teki na Kanojo, an OAV series based off of the light novels of the same name.) When this approach is applied to anime series (as it was in Moyashimon), the end result feels incomplete and unsatisfying. The creative staff is forced into writing a vague ending, which robs viewers of a sense of closure.

This is where the “heartful” ending becomes a useful tool for studios. By appealing to emotion, the creative staff can create a sense of closure by instilling a false sense of satisfaction or fulfillment within viewers. If done well, viewers may not notice that they’ve been robbed of a conclusive ending for quite a while. If done poorly, viewers immediately understand that what they’re watching is a deliberate attempt by the writers to shift attention away from the show’s inherent inability to end on a conclusive note. Such was the case with Kuragehime. Since there was no time for any of the show’s major conflicts to be resolved, Brain’s Base decided to throw in some crap about Tsukimi debuting as a fashion designer in an attempt to lull audiences into believing that her internal conflicts had all been resolved and that she was on the way to becoming a normal, functioning member of society. But wait— this wasn’t her problem in the first place now… was it?

It’s easier for studios to get away with this sort of emotional trickery for broadcast anime, since an episode airs every week. The events of last week’s episode are hazy in viewers’ minds, and studios are able to effectively exploit both modern-day ADHD and the Japanese affinity for sentimentality to cobble up an ending which is, for the most part, inconclusive but makes viewers “feel good” on this inside. This sort of approach should be canned, as it promotes lazy writing. Pacing is a crucial part of creating a good series, and studios should have the basic structure of a show’s plot, including its ending, long before storyboards are even drawn. (Of course, this is an idealist stance towards the issue, and I fully understand that this may not be practically possible.) There’s nothing worse than an excellent series ruined by rushed pacing and a lackluster ending, and with a bit of careful planning and a bit of diligence by writers, sloppy endings can be easily avoided.

NOTES:

1. Another possibility to inconclusive endings is that studios are thinking ahead to a sequel. This really doesn’t excuse them from not ending a show vaugely, either. Look at long-running American series— each season is standalone in a larger story (akin to arcs in a manga), and there’s no reason why multi-season anime can’t function this way.

2. Questions? Comments? Disagree? You could leave me a comment, but I’d much rather debate you at #nhrv, on irc.rizon.net. If you like what I’m doing here, please follow me at @Akirascuro.

8 Responses to “No End in Sight”

  1. For an anime like Macross F that is not tied to an unfinished serialized manga, the answer to a good ending is quite simple: something that ties up and concludes the major conflicts in an interesting and meaningful fashion.

    Things become more complicated for something like Kuragehime. I suppose the creators can plan ahead and just stop at a major plot resolution. For episodic manga, you can follow Madhouse’s interpretation of Gunslinger Girls and tell the most emotionally striking narrative at the end. However, there are some shows that can really cannot end until it cuts off. Hikaru no Go was forced into it, so was NANA and I’m sure countless other manga adaptations will be in the future.

  2. Hey, hey, don’t forget about the power of cliffhangers. The most interesting series, be them trainwrecks or otherwise, manipulate viewers with cliffhangers throughout the series, and season endings, which is especially true for American TV shows… like the excellent Breaking Bad, House, Prison Break etc.
    I’m thinking the creators of Kuragehime intended it to end on such a note thinking they’ll be able to animate another season and instill a sense of soap opera continuity. Unfortunately, the show probably hasn’t managed to come up with proper ratings to justify another season.

  3. Oh anime endings. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s incredibly annoying. For every Gungrave ending, we get ten Rozen Maidens. As much as I hate to say, from a practicality point of view, perhaps the wishy-washy ending that tugs at the heartstrings and boggles the mind, is as good as a lot of shows can do. We talked about Brain’s Base over IRC. DRRR!, Kure-nai, as well as Kuragehime. In those cases, the problem is an ongoing source. The one I find hardest to excuse is Sora no Woto (not Brain’s Base, obviously). It’s an anime original. Really, it has no excuse for being so gutless.

  4. The explanation for inconclusive endings is clear enough, but I can’t help but think of whether continuing original source always results in open-ended anime adaptations? Surely, it’s not always a valid excuse to justify a show’s “suckiness”. What about FMA 2004? It does have mixed reviews but for a show that supposedly followed a premature manga, it did pretty well standing on its own two feet.

    I think Kuragehime just needs at least two more episodes, thus following the more common 13-episode format. The whole Tsukimi becoming a fashion designers stretches suspension of disbelief, and I still find it hard to believe that she reached such a huge milestone so quickly. In fact, it grants the show more justice if there’s a second season. There just has to be one.

    Just a side comment, but the most unsatisfying open ending has got to be The Twelve Kingdom’s. Brilliant show without an ending.

  5. Hehe, glad I wasn’t the only one who thought Kuranosuke looked like Howl. Awesome photoshopping aside, re:

    Pacing is a crucial part of creating a good series, and studios should have the basic structure of a show’s plot, including its ending, long before storyboards are even drawn…

    Though it’s not always possible to plan meticulously in advance, surely if you know you’ve got X amount of episodes in a series, then why on earth does the ending get so rushed, as epi 11 of Kuragehime so spectacularly was? As you and others above have said, on-going source material affects the conclusiveness of anime endings, but it doesn’t have to, simply by carefully picking in advance what arc-ending you’re going to finish with (e.g.: Kaichou wa Maid-sama! did this pretty well earlier in the year), rather than leaving most of the main plot points hanging (e.g.: like Arakawa season 2 so unsatisfyingly did a few weeks back). Anyway, at least Kuragehime finished somewhere in beween, and if this show out of most of the ones of last year doesn’t deserve a second series, then I don’t know what does! *Crosses fingers.*

  6. But…. but…. the Macross Frontier ending was perfect closure! At the end, Alto realizes neither of these girls are worth his trouble and floats off into the sky, away from his friends, away from civilization…. it was a revolutionary ending for a romance series.

  7. thnks
    goooooooooood
    min:)

  8. Hi
    It’s a good post.

Leave a Reply

Gravatar enabled.