11/27/2007

Well, it got better: First Episode Syndrome

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Crank up that meta machine once again...

Something that I've always found kind of strange in anime fandom is the popularity of the phrase "Well, I didn't like the first episode, but I'll give it a few more shots."

As one who says too many good things about anime, it's not that it worries me that people are torturing themselves with anime they simply don't like - yet, one might potentially say, but rather...

Why can't they just make first episodes good for once?

Because the industry is crashing and burning, that's why.

Of course, the factor may not lie with the episodes themselves - since it would be illogical for a studio to put out a subpar-quality episode when it counts the most to reining in viewers - but with us, the audience.

Because we might just not care that much.

Why is it that first episodes never click? You probably think you know the answer - and you might just be right! It's not a hard topic, but there are quite a few valid explanations, and as always no stone of the anime metagame will remain unturned.

But what can you do about it, if you're tired of apologizing after shows, wondering why life never gets better - at least until a few hours of watching down the line?

Can we really do anything at all?

At least in my experience, there are some ways to be pleasantly surprised by new shows for once...

(Oh, and regarding the strike-through'd links, those are some of the articles that I felt stood out on the latest Oh God Anime is Dying debate; and as sarcastic as that sounds, it's not an issue to be ignored. At this point there is not left for me to say that has not been done elsewhere, so please give these people your attention.)

First off, that part about first episodes being produced with top-notch quality might be a bit of a lie. Certainly it's going to be one of the better-looking episodes in the series - especially for low-budget studios with marked decrease in quality as time passes - but in terms of content, the first episode, or even the first few episodes, can be less than overwhelming.

This is because, simple, you have to walk before you run, especially in fiction.

While a few shows have managed to pull of in medias res openings well, it's something that can very easily lead to confusion and a feeling of disjuncture with the show, and so most shows start in the normal place: the beginning. And the beginning is typically a boring place to be, yet one that's necessary.

It'd be great to begin with some of the more exciting parts of the series - to skip straight to School Days's boat-fest, Wangan Midnight's car races, or Shana's action/slap fights. But really, Getting to the Point in anime isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's the lead up to the climax that really makes things.

We need to get to know the characters, get to build-up the plot, get to have time to get settled and have our seatbelts buckled before the ride starts. While it's certainly emotional and in a regard awe-inspiring to see a character emotionally break down (or physically break down another character) it just won't have the same impact if there is no connection, no sympathy with the character.

And this leads to the above point that it's partially the viewer's fault - starting a new show is the two-dimensional equivalent of transferring to a new school (something not uncommon in the show itself). You don't know the people, the environment, or the scenario. It takes a lot of adjusting.

It's hard to get along with people when you don't know them, and it's hard to really like an anime that you don't know. Perhaps love at first sight comes easier for some people, but for most of us it's more sensible to be wary of all new shows, given the large amount of content out there and the limited amount of time available to watch it all.

The phrase 'win one's trust' comes to mind. An interesting plot twist here, a moe character there, each person has their weakness - not to shine a negative light on said spot - and if an anime can click with a person then it's going to be smooth sailing from there on out. Until then, however, there's that lag as the gears of anime try to match up with the viewer.

It's kind of a moot point then to try to actively like a show off the bat, as unless the animation studio is daring and tries to put something surprising in the first episode (and not just the stereotypical Plot Twist No One Saw Coming...except the viewer), there's not much to be truly interested in in the first episode aside from slight promises for the future.

So, why not try the opposite?

The shows that have surprised me the most have been the ones that I didn't see coming; the ones that I chose to watch based solely on recommendation.

Hype is a dangerous thing, in that building oneself up for a show can lead to some serious letdowns: look at the nearly-decimated fandom of Shana II, for example. Even if a show turns out to be good, setting high standards for it leaves a bar that's tough to top. You end up getting that sense of disillusionment, of "yeah, it was good, but it could've been better" or "is that all?".

It's a feeling that's equally possible at the end of a show than at a beginning, but getting caught in a show's web (in an enjoyable way) is more important early in an anime's life than in the later stage. But, not so early to build unrealistic hopes about the show before it's even started, mind you.

Anyways, I prefer to fly into a show blind. It's even better if I hate the idea. Just like every anti-villain out there, I put up a hard exterior to a show to hide a soft interior. Hating a show from the start only leads to more enjoyment once your misconceptions are shattered.

And if it really does turn out to be junk, hey! You were right.

I mean, take for example, Kaiji. The characters are ugly, the noses could punch holes in the wall and there's not a single drop of moe in the blend.

Such a shame that it turned out to be an engaging, thrilling mind-game show full of twists and overall gar then, no?

Perhaps it's because it goes hand-in-hand with my "oh what the heck, I'll give it a shot" attitude, but going into a show with no expectations really does wonders for making a show be a lot more entertaining.

It's like watching a show which you've already seen or spoiled: as much as you can anticipate the good scenes and interesting parts, the experience almost never matches up to when you see it for the first time. Seeing something with no preset mindset allows the show to fill in the blank slate as it wants rather than trampling over your current outline for the show.

So try 'tsun-ing' (sorry, I make the Japanese language cry) towards a show sometimes; attempt to hate it, so that you can love it that much more.

Because, somehow, even if the first episode doesn't strike any chords, as it always seems to do, there always seems to be something good in the middle or at the end.

-CCY
(And if you don't get the title joke, go slap yourself with a wet trout.)

comments:

I try to keep a very open mind watching anime series, but generally I give it three episodes to see whether I'd classify it under "I like it" or "I don't like it". (The latter would have different reasons, ranging from "just not my thing" like Kaiji to "it sucks" like Musashi Gundou.)

This does mean that if the show turns out to be bad, I get hurt more. Still, considering that I'm an anime fan because I'm supposed to love anime, I think it's a fair tradeoff. The alternative is to always go "OMG Worst Season Ever" every single anime season, which I believe is undesirable, if only for the hyperbole.

Anyway. Let's look at several examples of first episodes which were significant, or perhaps significant in their insignificance.

Lucky Star - The first episode pretty much gave us the characters' names and general conversation style, and nothing else. Supposedly it lost a lot of viewers, although I'd put that down to unjustified expectations. However, since the episode is representative of the entire series, it should probably be considered in that light.

Card Captor Sakura - We get introductions to the main character, her family, her best friend, and the animal mascot. Everything is done in a fairly standard manner, down to the "good luck on your future adventures, just not beginning" at the end. It does what a first episode of a children's series is supposed to do, and does it well, with no pretensions or distractions. A good first episode, but, as much as I like the show, not a great one.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - This one has the advantage of having two "first episode"s. The DVD/Kyonological version has the student movie, which fulfils the basic criteria of a first episode: we are introduced to the characters, and we learn their habits and quirks. The animation quality is deceptive, being the sort of "bad movie methods" that is actually quite hard to do in animation.

And then we have the chronological first episode, where we do all the introductions all over again, but this time in a more "normal" setting. Personal biases and viewpoints will determine which one is the "better" first episode.

Yoakena Mae Ruri Iro Na - The first episode was very promising. Yes, it was a pretty standard-looking harem anime, but the humour was sweet and light, and the characters looked suitably soothing to the eyes. Plenty of people, myself included, had high hopes for the series.

And then the cabbage arrived.

Until now, a lot of people still have problems trusting others' recommendations, since "you recommended Yoakena". But based on that first episode, there wasn't anything not to recommend for those who liked the genre.

So what I'm trying to say is that for my case, I try not to judge in either direction based on the first episode, but try to keep a constant low-grade cautious optimism: it could end up like Yoakena, but it could also end up like Lucky Star.