I know the favourite retort of Scamp, from The Cart Driver, right now is “it gets better, I swear” as a way to dismiss any claims that his criticism of a given series that has either previously aired or is an adaptation are shortsighted. The problem with this as a counter-criticism is that “it gets better” is actually legitimate more often than he’d like to admit. Scamp and I vary drastically as far as our policies on dropping anime go. He’ll generally trial the first episode of everything except the most obvious of garbage, while I only drop anime out of utter despair, and am more than willing to tolerate dreck once in a while (whatever doesn’t kill you, etc). Back in the day, I too would try a swathe of new shows at the outset of the season, but even then I considered dropping an anime akin to surrender. These days, I’m a bit more finicky and discriminating with my first up choices, and inclined to listen to reviews about what I’ve missed. (This post contains moderate spoilers for the tagged titles.)
My behaviours and policies haven’t evolved randomly. Looking back to the time, almost a decade ago, when I first started anime watching as a hobby, there was a commonality in a significant sample of the shows I watched: Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Azumanga Daioh and Berserk. None of them had what I considered to be very absorbing first episodes. Yet, I have no qualms calling these shows “classics” now. On the other side of the coin, I was enraptured by the first episodes of .hack//SIGN, Noir and Witch Hunter Robin, but walked away from all unsatisfied. The trend seemed clear: plot heavy series don’t show their true colours in the first act, but save the biggest plot twists and punches for when it really matters: the end. Similarly, a sense of familiarity – whether it be characters, tone or style – is requisite for enjoying slice-of-life series, and this is something that can only be properly fostered with time and a handful of episodes.
Series with a front-ended focus are strong to begin with because the hook is paramount, but they often resort to gimmicks or superficialities to draw their audience in, which can unravel and end up looking pretty vacant, especially if the writing isn’t up to scratch. How many mystery series can you remember that start off by posing an intriguing question, only for it to be resolved with a disappointing answer, or forgotten completely? (*cough* Fractale *cough*) How many romance series start off filled with tension and charm, only to become tiresome because the relationship doesn’t go anywhere for the next twenty episodes? (*cough cough* Ai Yori Aoshi, Kaichou wa Maid-sama! *splutter*) How many action series pack their first few episodes with explosions, only to run through their budgets before half time? (*bleeerrgghhh* Fate/Stay Night *vomit all over everything*) In my mind, a good first episode invites excitement, but also wariness. The law of averages, along with my own experience, implies that the show usually won’t maintain the same quality for its entire run.
But, I’d much rather discuss anime that improve, and make their biggest impacts in the latter arcs. Here are a small handful of examples, but if you know if any others, please add them in the comments. Proving Scamp wrong is my other favourite hobby, and any additional ammunition for my argument is certainly welcome. I also have another theory that I want to test, which is that the oft-invoked “three episode test” used by people who do drop anime regularly is more likely to work for recent series than it is for older series. Perhaps it’s merely a perception thing, aided by the fact that I’ve been watching anime for a while now, but I’ve found genuinely pleasantly surprising anime more rare now, but series that end disappointingly just as common (possibly even more so) as they’ve always been. I think Akira‘s explanation for why adapted anime and/or series with limited runtimes and the tenuous possibility of a sequel get shonky endings makes sense. After all, you can’t make future profits from a series that’s had an unambiguous finish. Unfortunately, that means limp-wristed, meaningless open endings are more likely to be rewarded. At the same time, anime needs to work within twenty minute attention spans, which might explain the pressure on a series to either hook the audience straight away or not at all. The meticulous slow building mystery that blows its audience away with a sequence of climactic plot twists in the final three or so episodes isn’t a dead dinosaur… but it’s not a populous genre either, and not one nearly as prominent as it was in the past (say, turn of the century), I suspect. Anyway, let’s get empirical and discuss some examples.
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
Arguably the series that legitimized and popularized the horror anime genre, and brought mystery visual novel conversions into vogue. Ironically, it was thanks to Scamp that I recently reflected on my own first thoughts on Higurashi, because, as ashamed as I am to admit it, they weren’t dissimilar to his. When Higurashi first aired in 2006, it came shortly after the reprehensible Shuffle! and Nakahara Mai, who voiced Rena, had just finished playing the lead female role in one of the most unfunny harem anime I’ve ever seen, Kage Kara Mamoru!, which is only remembered now for the “Banana Song“. Having these two series in recent memory did no favours for my first impression of Higurashi – the yandere element reminded me of Shuffle! while Rena reminded me of Yuna from Kage Kara Mamoru! – and that was on top of the woeful animation that didn’t improve until Kai and the flippant humour that’s purpose as a counter-point to the horror didn’t make sense until subsequent arcs. I’m so glad I stuck with it. I honestly don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s a defining work of the genre.
My-HiME‘s premiere was a mish-mash of generic cliches that, these days, we’d probably refer to as “tropes”. But, it built things up, giving time for us to get to know its characters and understand their relationships, and allowing a number of subplots to simmer and bubble just under the surface. “It gets better, I swear” is hardly ever more relevant than for describing this show, because even up to ep 16, frivolous distractions such as karaoke cosplay sessions happened semi-regularly. And this came after episodes involving panty goblins and baking contests. But when the fan was struck in the head behind play by shit, the mood changed drastically, thanks to a single revelation by the malevolent Nagi. A frantic conflict followed, but the reason it was so dramatic was because of the high stakes, and the fact that all HiMEs fought to protect a loved one, which meant that emotions ran high. It wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t understand the relationships in the lead-up, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as surprising if the revelation had come in the first arc, as opposed to the last. If only the anticlimactic final episode didn’t ruin it completely.
Finally, a more recent example. Moshidora is another series that has a rather drastic change in tone after a well-timed, well-executed plot twist near the end. What starts out as a logical, if gimmicky series about an unlikely hypothetical turns into an extremely moving emotional drama about coping with death. The change in tone works because, up until this stage, the characters have been presented in a sympathetic and believable way. Minami, in particular, carries the show with her down-to earth sense of honesty and reason. The general responses to Moshidora have struck me as strange in their negativity and cynicism. Perhaps the initial premise of mixing a particular style of business theory with baseball stretches suspension of disbelief further than some people were willing to cede, or perhaps people just didn’t find the idea all that interesting. Nonetheless, the style of grounded melodrama that came after the show moved its focus away from Drucker, and towards the human element, is something I’d love to see more often in the medium, and I’d strongly argue that it’s rare to see it executed better in anime than it was in Moshidora.