A lot of otaku will tell you that one of the appealing things about anime is that the stories are fresh and different. Which is true. We’ve seen all the stories Hollywood has to tell. A lot. That one story about the loner guy who doesn’t play by the rules but beats the bad guy and gets the girl in the end? We’ve seen it, and a thousand like it. Likewise for the one about two cops who are very different and don’t get along, but who need each other in order to crack the case. We’ve been up and down that story many times, and it was getting stale before I was even born. So the different stories coming out of Japan really are a breath of fresh air.
But after a few years I’m starting to notice that I’ve heard some of these Japanese stories before. These stories are getting worn as well, yet I would still rather watch one of these than anything on American television. I think it goes beyond the novelty of the story.
It was only recently that I realized that the major attraction of anime for me is probably the fact the stories end. And they don’t just end, they end on purpose and at a point that was decided on in the very beginning. A series might go long, but they do have a noticeable story arc and a deliberate conclusion at the end. There is a real satisfaction when I reach the end of a good anime, not unlike the feeling I get when I finish a book.
In the U.S. (and most western countries, I suspect) shows are made to last. They try to maintain the status quo as much as possible, so that when the show goes into syndication the episodes can be shown in any order. It’s also a lot easier to write for a steady-state show. You can farm out episodes to different writers and shuffle them around as the broadcast schedule dictates. In effect, they avoid telling any sort of long-term story.
After years of watching these shows, I now find this to be painfully tedious. I hate the way shows will end in a cliffhanger at the end of the season, so that they can entice viewers back after the network is done boring everyone with summer reruns. Even worse is when the viewer tunes in next fall to see how the story turned out, only to have everything go back to the same default state. So, the only time you need to care what happens between episodes is when the episodes are shown four months apart. That’s just rude.
I have not seen regular television in about six years. (Except for this small exception.) I don’t miss it. I know the stories they are telling aren’t real stories. Nothing ever really happens and it never really goes anywhere. It’s just a long chain of unrelated events leading to cancelation.
I heard about the Sopranos a couple of years ago and got excited. Not because this was a mob story, but because I heard that they had decided to do a show that would last five seasons, and then end. At last, someone has a story to tell! I started watching the show (via Netflix) and I enjoyed it. It doesn’t follow the network TV formula of interchangable episodes. Characters come and go, rise in importance or get killed off. The thing seemed pretty fluid and held my attention until season 4. Then I noticed the show was suffering from a bad case of squirrel brain. Instead of two or three running stories, the show now had a dozen. Plots would show up, jump to the foreground, and then trail off without really coming to any conclusion. The show began focusing on a lot of different characters instead of just Tony and his family. Every show would play hit-and-run with a half dozen plots, all of which seemed like they were just about to climax, yet they never did. Suddenly I realized: This isn’t a drama. This is a soap opera for men.
Then I heard that they were making a season six and I felt betrayed. All this time I thought the show was going somewhere, and it wasn’t. It was just going. I thought they had a story arc written that would stretch from episode one to the very end of season five, where it would all wrap up. No. They didn’t have any ending in mind when they started, and season 4 proved to me that they didn’t have a single overall story to tell. I lost all interest in the show. Now I hear they are making season six-and-a-half (come on, it’s season seven and everyone knows it!) and I feel like I wasted an awful lot of my time it.
I hate this about American shows, which is why I enjoy Anime so much. Often the endings are lackluster, obvious, or (most common of all) confusing and ambiguous, but hey – at least they have an ending. A book with a rotten ending is better than a book that stops halfway through the final chapter with an ad to buy the next book.
Mahoromatic is famous for its horrible ending, yet I still like the fact that it did end, and they aren’t still cranking out season after season of the same crap over and over again. Oh look! Suguru has been in middle school for ten years, Chizu still loves food, Shikijo is still chasing Suguru around, and Mahoro still somehow hasn’t run out of energy. For ten freakin’ years. I know this is how the show would work if it had been made in Hollywood, and it’s a shame.
It’s hard to tell if this is a result of American culture or Hollywood itself. I’ve always assumed that the writers were just too stupid and lazy to try to tell a real story, but its entirely possible that American viewers don’t care. Maybe most people like steady-state shows, and television is giving them exactly what they want.
UPDATE: Steven is talking about stories and novelty today as well. He sounds a lot more jaded than me, but he’s been doing this anime thing for years longer and at a much greater pace.
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