Why I love Anime, Part 1

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Jun 14, 2006

Filed under: Anime 17 comments

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.

Neverending 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.

The Sopranos

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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17 thoughts on “Why I love Anime, Part 1

  1. There was a show in the late 1980’s called “WiseGuy” which actually told real stories which actually ended. What they did was to divide their year into about four 6-show segments, and each one told a complete story with a real ending. And they’d actually create characters for us, get us to know them, and then kill them off. I was never really much of a fan, but I do remember that it was a lot different than anything else on TV at the time.

  2. Pixy Misa says:

    I get the feeling every so often that I’m tired of anime. But what I’m tired of is bad (or even average) anime. Every time I get that feeling a good show will come along – Nanaka 6/17 or Midori no Hibi or Kamichu or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya – and I’ll get sucked right back in again.

  3. Mark says:

    I remember WiseGuy… though it seemed that even the half-season story arcs got a bit repetitive after a while (I was a little young at the time, but that’s the impression I got from watching with my dad)…

    I definitely think that there’s a sort of diminishing returns the more you partake in a given entertainment form. At this point, there are so many different things that I’m entertained by that I don’t really spend too much time on any one of them (with the possible exception of watching movies), so I don’t get too sick of any of them either. To paraphrase the old saying, it seems that the entertainment fads that burn the brightest, also burn the shortest.

    One thing that can make me watch network TV is an added social component – if you’re watching with other people, it’s more bearable. Call it the MST3K effect. That’s how I’ve ended up watching every season of 24 (which is a show that has firm endings and isn’t afraid to kill off characters, though last season the formula was wearing a bit thin).

    The other thing that helps is watching TV on DVD. This has become so prevalent that I think it’s why a lot of newer shows have long story arcs… because they don’t have to worry about people missing an episode as much.

    Like Pixy says, every once in a while I’ll read a book or watch a movie that completely enthralls me and removes any doubt and sucks me back in…

  4. HC says:

    I absolutely agree on the importance of telling large scale stories – a collection of episodes may be an excellent collection of short stories, but often a novel is wanted.

    That said, these last few years have been a good time for dramas with endings, and HBO has been right at the forefront of that Sopranos isn’t what was promised, true – but take a look at The Wire or Deadwood. As Sopranos did, they may yet betray the premise, but so far they’ve done excellent work, and done it by centering the stories on a city or town. Individual character rise or fall, and the town’s slower arc goes on underneath it all. The first season of Veronica Mars was iexactly what you’re looking for – a good, unified, story with a beginning and an end. The second season suffers in comparison, and the good news is that they’re going to a three arc system next season – like that Wiseguy show SDB mentioned. Battlestar Galactica looks to have effectively ended one story and started another, very different, one after the second season finale. Even shows like Wonderfalls show the signs.

    Also, I just can’t get through post on television-stories-with-endings without asking about Babylon 5 – have you seen it?

    I’d also second Pixy Misa – getting bored with second-rate anime is one thing; getting bored with anime is another.

  5. Shamus says:

    Oh, I’m not bored with anime. I’m just finally at the point where everything is feeling familiar. It’s no longer a journey of discoverery every time I try something new. More like a, “Oh, one of these again, eh? Well, let’s see if it’s any good.”

    Ai Aori Yoshi was different and unexpected when I saw it as a newbie. If I saw it now, I would recognize it for what it was: a very ordinary Harem Comedy.

    I’m just saying that the honeymoon is over, not that I want a divorce. :)

  6. Evil Otto says:

    Gotta agree with you… I like the fact that many anime series end after a season or so. A lot of them would suffer if the attempted to keep going… “Tonight on ‘Last Exile: Season Seven’: Is Sophie pregnant? And who is the father? Plus, Dio and Lucciola go to Vegas.”

    And it’s one of the things I loved about Babylon 5. Five seasons, that’s it. Story is done. There have been a few attempts to start *different* series set in the same universe, but the original series itself ran its course and ended. More than a few series (cough*X-Files*cough*) claim to have a limited run planned and an overarching storyline, but somehow forget it after a few seasons.

  7. I guess I haven’t seen enough anime to get bored yet – apart from the Miyazaki genre, of which I have seen a lot (and am watching Howl’s Moving Castle this afternoon since my wife is on call and my daughter at the inlaws). And what I’ve sampled has been pretty diverse. I shoudl make a list of what I watched and whats on tap – it will be quite a modest list. Then again, I also diversify a lot into science fiction and other things so maybe it’s precisely my shallow sampling depth that keeps me interested?

  8. Jeff says:

    You know, this has to do with what I imagine the difference to be between how the networks work.

    My experience is with Chinese (Cantonese, Hong Kong) shows contrasting with American, but generally American networks seems to pick up and drop series, and the episodes get cut short or extended depending on if the networks keep them running. So a show appears to do well, the networks keep it. If it doesn’t, it’s dropped. This leads to a distinct lack of, well, change. Shows have to get interest, and then hold it. And so long as they hold interest, the networks want more.

    In Hong Kong, most series are written as one storyline, filmed, and then aired. To my knowledge, no series has ever been dropped midway. (There are exceptions – some series resemble non-arc shows like The Simpsons where everything is wrapped up and back to normal at the end of one episode. You can always tell when they run out of ideas in those…) Essentially though, most of the shows are indeed a story arc. Three come to mind – a police officer gets sent back in time, and the only way he can have a future to return to is if he makes sure the first emperor of China BECOMES the first emperor. And eventually, there is a first emperor, and the story concludes. Then there are two ‘education’ based ones, one about pilots in training, and one about police in training. The stories run over what happens while they’re there, and concludes with their graduation. Neat contained story arcs.

    This is entirely (I feel) because of how the networks operate differently. It’s worth noting that the major networks in HK seem to have one pool of talent (per network), and the shows always draw from their respective pools. So the networks seem to compete on a show-basis, not an episode-basis.

    This may well have to do with different attitudes in Western and Eastern businesses (and TV is of course a business). The CEO of Sony once deplored the short-sightedness of American corporations. Something about how you sometimes have to make investments that pay off ten years down the road, not the next fiscal quarter.

  9. elfsage says:

    One show I feel lived up to its promise was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know not everyone was a fan and I respect that, but each season had a plot-arc based around a specific villain. Each season referenced events from previous seasons (although not always important ones) and were internally consistent. And nobody could argue the show didn’t have a definite ending. Furthermore, even though other members of the ensemble did guest-star on later seasons of Angel, Buffy herself never made an appearance.

  10. Dominic says:

    I guess thats why Vision of Escafowne made such a monstrous impression on me. It actually changed my life. Such good character designs and fully fleshed out stories. It was so opposite of American television. Many origianl ideas in it as well. So many mysteries surrounding the Escaflowne armor. Then they made the movie, which was crap. Its like they suddenly nudered Escaflowne, beat it up and kicked it around and then published whatever came out of it’s behind.

  11. MikeSSJ says:

    Aside from the obvious mention of Babylon 5 as pretty much the ONLY show that had a pre-determined ending from the very beginning, I’d like to mention two more shows I found (or find) quite enjoyable:

    Farscape: Science Fiction, and pretty good, if you ask me. It has a clear story-arc, and it even has a clear ending. As a matter of fact, the makers of Farscape collected money after the show was cancelled in order to produce a short mini-series giving the fans the ending everyone was waiting for, and it was definitely worth it.

    24: The formula might be similar for each season, but there are enough changes occuring during each season that the “status quo” is never maintained. At least one of the main characters WILL be gone by the end of the day. New characters get introduced, and the whole thing tends to be a bit unpredictable, which is a GOOD thing.
    Of course, I haven’t watched all available seasons yet, and rather than build towards one final conclusion, each season is it’s own stand-alone-story, but nonetheless I feel like I have to mention this as one of the few “good” American shows out there.

    If you haven’t watched either of them yet, you might consider at least giving them a chance.

  12. Katrani Merack says:

    This is a very good point. There are some animes/mangas that drag on for too long- InuYasha, for one. At least the anime, never read the manga. Dragonball/Z/GT for another example, but in that case the creator was forced to keep making more. Some seem too short. I have a feeling Miyazaki could’ve done better if he’d done Howl’s Moving Castle as a series, instead of a two-hour movie. Not sure if that’s how long it actually is, but that’s besides the point.

    At the same time, the Japanese still have that ‘we’ve gotta get this done!’ sense sometimes. Take Hellsing, for instance. The anime overtook the manga, but instead of waiting, they came up with an extra villian and just tied it up. That’s not to say I don’t love some of the extra things- Order 09, for one- but Incognito was just weird and didn’t fit at all. FMA avoided this, although I’m not sure HOW. The anime tied up most, if not all, of the loose ends, and is good either as a stand alone or as another way the manga could’ve been told.

    Then, there are American titles- and British ones!- like this. Or I think there are. Firefly only got the one season- CURSE YOU FOX!- but I believe it would’ve ended if given a chance withint three or four seasons, and Serenity did a wonderful job of tying things up. Futurama is a borderline example. Sure, there was a status quo. But they ended the seasons with actual endings, just in case they didn’t get a new season, especially the last. Most of the characters didn’t turn into mockeries of themselves, like they have on the Simpsons. That’s why I watched all of it. There was development, but it didn’t flanderize anyone.

    For the British example, look at Doctor Who. Sure, it doesn’t have a definite ending. Probably never will. But there are certain points where people can stop watching and feel like it’s the end, or keep watching until they grow tired of it or whatever. That is a good example of a status quo show- thigns are allowed to change, but it never left its premise. And that’s ignoring the movies, just because, and I’ve never read the novels.

    Also, if you’re looking for something samey-but-new, try Magic Knight Rayearth. Sure, it was made in 1993 (I believe), but the dub isn’t horrible and the story isn’t completely predictable. The first season has some filler as compared to the manga (since there’s only 3 volumes), and the second season is pretty different, but it’s still good and original, even if it seems to start out samey. CLAMP’s best work, I believe.

  13. tomas says:

    Shamus, you should check TV show “Twin Peaks” – it does end!

  14. Daniel says:

    I know that it never finished but Firefly seemed like it could have been a great show. Anything by Whedon is great in my book.

  15. Wiseman says:

    I assume the sameness of anime finally got to you as you stopped covering it. Anime has always been a part of my life in a way. It’s always been on open television in Brazil till recently and while I haven’t always watched religiously I also never thought I’d ever quit it for the most part because that would be just like quitting movies or books. It’s not a thing you do, you know. You have strayed for too long. Come back home, grasshopper.

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